In a World Cup not quite like any other, where every twist and turn has proved impossible to predict, France and Croatia provided a fitting final in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Yes, eventually the result went the way of the pre-kickoff favourites as Les Bleus lifted their second World Cup with a 4-2 victory. But for larger portions of this game Croatia were the team on the front foot, controlling possession and creating better quantity and quality of scoring chances. Only some good fortune and individual brilliance in key moments separated France from the supposed underdogs in an enthralling six-goal affair.
In fact it was Croatia who started this game on the front foot by putting the French under pressure early on as Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Pavard and Samuel Umtiti were all required to cut out increasingly dangerous balls into the box. It was only when Mbappe managed to isolate Ivan Strinic out wide at the other end that France staged their first meaningful attack, the prodigious forward’s mazy run and ball across goal eventually coming back out to Antoine Greizman – who bought a soft foul from a dangling Croatian leg just outside the penalty area.
The Atletico talisman sailed his free kick into Croatia’s deep-sitting crowd of markers and it took a telling touch off the head of Mario Manduzkic, not completely redirecting the ball but adding enough spin and creating enough confusion to put it past Danijel Subasic for an 18th-minute own goal.
From that moment on, every advance on the counter from Mbappe was met with a huge roar of anticipation, but Croatia were out to re-write the script handed out by the pundits before the match. Highlighting how many problems they were causing in midfield, N’Golo Kante was booked in just the 27th minute for repeated fouling, and that free kick soon brought the scores level. France couldn’t clear Luka Modric’s delivery and as the ball fell to the man who punished England so dearly in the semi-finals, Ivan Perisic, the Inter Milan star took it down into a yard of space and then drilled a shot across Lloris into the bottom of the net.
Set pieces remained a recurring theme, as they have for much of this tournament, and when France attempted to respond almost instantly from a corner, VAR was required for the first ever time in a World Cup final after a flick-on from a Blaise Matuidi header made contact with Perisic’s hand.
Despite the lack of distance and consequently speed between the initial contact with the ball and Perisic’s loose, swinging arm, referee Nestor Pinata decided to award a spot kick upon reviewing the footage first-hand – a decision that will do no favours for VAR’s fluctuating credibility and epitomised this final’s bizarre lust for the ridiculous. Griezmann stepped up and sent Subasic the wrong way, calmly slotting left as the goalkeeper dived right.
Seconds after that, Perisic galloped down the other end, his driven delivery finding its man but not receiving the kind of connection the cross deserved. Similar instances occurred in the subsequent minutes – some again from set pieces – but after a first 45 that demonstrated Croatia’s capacity to surprise even the most elite of opposition, making six more attempts at goal than the pre-kickoff favourites and taking 66% possession, it was France who went into half-time with a 2-1 lead.
Croatia returned from the interval firing, Ante Rebic forcing Lloris to tip over the bar with a powerful effort from just inside the box. While the corner amounted to little, Croatia quickly compounded their pressure – a Marcelo Brozovic ball over the top required a superb stretching interception from Raphael Varane, and Mandzukic then got the better of Pavard on the right by breaking a challenge before charging to the box and forcing yet another corner.
France though, continued to show their threat in doses as a delicious ball from Paul Pogba curled perfectly into the feet of an onrushing Mbappe. The Frenchman could speed away from Ivan Strinic and Domagoj Vida, but failed to put his effort beyond the frame of Subasic who made himself big at the near post. That chance wasn’t enough to convince Didier Deschamps of a shift in momentum, however, and the France boss sought to impact from the bench – swapping the booked Kante for Steven Nzonzi with over an hour still on the clock.
And that change made an instant difference, albeit through exactly the same line of supply. Pogba drilled another through ball into the kind of space Mbappe ate up all afternoon and the youngster once again got in behind Croatia’s backline on the left-hand side. The delivery created confusion rather than a clear-cut chance, but as Pogba charged forward to re-join the attack, Griezmann laid off to the Manchester United star who ripped a powerful curler past a rooted Subasic to give France a far more convincing 3-1 lead. If ridiculousness was one powerful theme of this final, Pogba’s goal showed the other – moments of pure sublime.
Suddenly France were in full control, despite Croatia’s possession at this point still being in the mid-sixties, and their subsequent attack lead to yet another goal. Instead of playing a pivotal hand in creating danger, Mbappe this time drifted inside to exploit an opportunity created by Lucas Hernandez. The left-back squared across the edge of the box, allowing Mbappe to fool Vida by committing him one way and then using the centre-back’s body to guide a shot into the bottom corner.
The idea of a Croatia comeback, even just to take the game into extra time, seemed implausible for a few more minutes until Lloris gifted Mandzukic perhaps the easiest goal of his career, the Tottenham goalkeeper reviving and encapsulating the key theme of ridiculousness. Umtiti played the ball back to Lloris who bizarrely attempted to sidestep Croatia’s wily centre-forward in his own six-yard box. The piece of trickery backfired spectacularly, Mandzukic simply tackling the ball into the net, and Croatia were back in the game with twenty minutes left to go.
The match then became a matter of France trying to professionally kill off the game and Croatia doing everything in their power to keep it alive, a Rakitic shot still whistling past the post as the lead-chasers reinstated their control of possession and tempo. Mbappe remained the key outlet, although there was only so much the World Cup’s most promising young star could do on his own or in one instance even with Pogba’s support – both players appeared to simply run out of steam.
Perhaps inevitably though, the overall momentum of the game began to peter out – France eked out every opportunity to waste time and slow down the game, just as Croatia became increasingly desperate, unfocused and frustrated.
And eventually, after a quarter-hour of huff and puff, the final whistle blew, on not only a thrilling, intoxicating, dramatic final but also a tournament that was laced with all three of those adjectives throughout. Ridiculous, sublime, unpredictable and goal-laden, football fans around the world have been spoiled this summer.