Well, this is it, the game the whole tournament has been building up to. The World Cup final. Sadly there will be no participation from Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions, but this still has the makings of a good game.
France have performed slowly but ably throughout the tournament, getting the job done without – with the exception of a 4-3 win over Argentina – any real fireworks. Les Bleus will be the firm favourites for this game too, as Croatia arguably represent the weakest of the four sides they’ve had to face in the knockout rounds.
Croatia, meanwhile, saved the best until last, they found an extra gear against England and were deserving winners in the end. They’ll probably need to find another gear on top of that to win this tie but as England learnt, they are a side that mustn’t be underestimated.
Certain performances from Deschamps’ side have left fans wanting, to the point that they were booed off after their 0-0 stalemate with Denmark back in the group stage. They also only managed lacklustre narrow victories against both Australia and Peru, raising serious question marks over their potential.
Les Bleus pulled out all the stops to blow away Lionel Messi and Argentina in the round of 16 before two more professional but a little stale victories over Belgium and Uruguay.
It means we don’t really know what to expect from the French. They certainly have a plethora of attacking talent, and expressed their ability to use that with four goals against Argentina. With nothing left to reserve energy for, Deschamps may set his team loose to run riot over the Croatians and make them the team to beat for future tournaments.
Or, more likely, he could stick with his shrewd approach that has delivered so much success.
Croatia meanwhile started very brightly with comfortable wins over Nigeria and Argentina in the group stage to secure advancement with a game to spare. They looked awfully leggy coming out of the group though, and laboured to a 1-1 draw with Denmark.
Advancing on penalties, their next game also went all the way with Croatia conceding a late equaliser against the hosts Russia. Croatia engineered another shootout victory but had looked less than impressive in the knockout rounds, and many expected them to be bowled over by an exuberant England team.
The Croatians proved their quality with an expert performance though, even after suffering the disappointment of an early goal. The heads didn’t drop and they gradually got better as the game went on, controlling the play from half-time onwards.
This time it was Croatia with the late extra-time goal as they sunk England to advance to their first World Cup final.
The head to head doesn’t make pleasant reading for the Croatian fans, as they have never before beaten the French. The last two meetings of the sides have ended in draws, including the last competitive meeting – a 2-2 draw in the group stage of Euro 2004.
Croatia lost the three meetings prior, most notably in the semi-final of 1998 World Cup that France went on to win. France’s current manager Didier Deschamps was his nation’s captain on that day, as they ran out 2-1 winners to set up a memorable final on home soil.
Croatia took the lead in that game with national icon Davor Suker scoring the opening goal just after halftime. Lilian Thuram equalised for France just a minute later and went on to bag a brace in the 70th minute as France advanced to their first and only World Cup title to date.
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris, Pavard, Umtiti, Varane, Hernandez, Pogba, Kante, Mbappe, Griezmann, Matuidi, Giroud
Croatia (4-1-4-1): Subasic, Vrsalijko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic, Brozovic, Rebic, Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Mandzukic
As England found out, a fairly conservative Croatian formation can quickly become an attacking 4-3-3 when they are in search of goals. The power for them is all in that talented midfield, and they’ll look to dictate the pace and control the game from the middle of the park.
The problem for them will be breaking down a rigid France defence, Mario Mandzukic has been a top striker over the years but has never really been known for his guile or agility. Between Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, France also have a dominant midfield duo that will make things very difficult for Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
They have the ability to dominate the midfield and that will really disrupt Croatia’s gameplan, whilst Mandzukic won’t get any joy in between Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane as a lone striker.
It’s hard to imagine Croatia creating many if any chances if they deploy their standard formation, because it is a plan seemingly completely outmatched by the French approach. With Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann on the counter, France will have plenty of goal threat.
Mbappe was the talk of the last round and is the favourite to take home the Golden Ball, he’ll be a shoo-in for that with a good performance here. Don’t underestimate the Croatians but by all reckoning, this should be a fairly simple World Cup triumph for France.
Prediction: France 2-0 Croatia