Over a month of fascinating football, not to mention the lengthy qualification period, now comes down to two teams and one game – Sunday’s World Cup final.
In the minds of most, France are the firm favourites over Croatia in terms of both quality on paper and what they’ve already shown at this enthralling tournament. But could the underdogs have a surprise in store for the 1998 World Cup winners?
From the tale of the historic tape to the potential influence of the referee and of course team news, our match preview covers everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s 4pm kickoff…
The historic record only further strengthens the theory that France are favourites for this one. For starters, Croatia have never actually beaten Les Bleus, but that record has improved in recent years – after losing thrice between 1998 and 2000, the last two meetings between both countries have ended in draws, including a 2-2 at Euro 2004.
Perhaps more pertinently, France entered the World Cup 13 places higher than Croatia in the FIFA rankings, which highlights the gap between these two sides. Then again, the fact two countries outside the top five have made this summer’s final doesn’t give those rankings much credibility.
But for Croatia to win on Sunday, they’ll have to do a first in their history at their first attempt. Whereas France have won one of their two World Cup finals, Croatia have never made this stage of the competition before.
France’s route to the final has been pretty much flawless, never requiring extra time let alone a penalty shootout – which should mean they’re physically and mentally a little fresher than Croatia heading into Sunday’s showdown.
Even the 4-3 with Argentina was by no means as close as the scoreline suggests; they were the better team for substantial periods, and it was the only occasion in which this France side has conceded more than once at the World Cup.
That centre-back pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti, responsible for four clean sheets in six, will be a huge part of any victory in the final.
In contrast to France, Croatia have had to claw their way to this point of the competition, despite facing theoretically simpler opposition. All three of their knockout games have involved extra time, including the semi-final against England, and two have gone to a penalty shootout.
Encouragingly for France, the Balkans nation haven’t kept a clean sheet since demolishing Argentina in the Group Stages, although they have scored at least twice in all but one of their six World Cup outings so far.
Nobody wants a World Cup final decided by refereeing decisions, and to a large extent VAR should prevent that, but Nestor Pitana has been quite proactive so far at this tournament.
He’s awarded two penalties in four games, handed out the fifth-most yellow cards of any referee and ranks 11th out of the 28 officials to work at this World Cup for fouls per game.
That said, he will have a decent understanding of both teams already after overseeing Croatia’s penalty shootout win over Denmark and France’s 2-0 victory over Uruguay.
The Argentine brings a fitting end to the tournament too; in the same stadium at the very start of the tournament, he oversaw Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia in the opening game.
There are some doubts over Olivier Giroud’s fitness for the final, but the Chelsea striker will almost certainly start if he’s fit enough to stand.
Not only will Giroud be desperate to but, despite still awaiting his first World Cup goal of the summer, he’s proved to be the perfect balancing act that’s really brought this France team to life after being benched for their first Group Stage game – giving Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe a focal point to play off.
At this stage of the tournament, Didier Deschamps appears to have finally settled on his best setup after some early tinkering. Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris is a default choice between the sticks, the aforementioned Varane and Umtiti have become a nearly impenetrable centre-back partnership, and N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba of Chelsea and Manchester United respectively have really clicked in midfield.
They have probably the most important role for Sunday’s encounter – keeping France ticking over while limiting Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric’s influence.
Croatia too, have tempered with the formula quite frequently throughout this World Cup, but retaining the starting XI that beat England last time out seems the likeliest scenario.
Marcelo Brozovic provides the protection for Rakitic and Modric to really play, but perhaps the key offensive threat is Ivan Perisic – only the legendary Davor Suker has played a hand in as many World Cup goals for Croatia as the Inter Milan midfielder.
The other key aspects of this team are a gritty, mean and physical defence, and their wily centre-forward Mario Mandzukic.
Having scored goals for the biggest clubs in the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A and in two Champions League finals, he only needs half a chance to get on the scoresheet. Likewise, his sheer tenacity epitomises much about this Croatia team.