Two contrasting styles duel for the Golden Ball
Master craftsman Modric and speed king Mbappe go head-to-head in final
Although the World Cup trophy is the ultimate prize in Sunday’s showdown between France and Croatia, there are two players on opposing sides who will be battling to get their hands on another, individual accolade.
Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric are the frontrunners for the Golden Ball, with the duo central to why their respective teams feature at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
Zinedine Zidane – the 2006 recipient despite his tournament ending in disgrace when he was sent off for a headbutt on Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the final – may well not be too far from the thoughts of either player this weekend.
Zidane is the only Frenchman to win it and also played a pivotal role as a maiden World Cup trophy was lifted by Les Bleus on home soil 20 years ago, which will surely spur Mbappe on to continue casting his bewitching brilliance over the tournament.
The teenager embodies football’s new breed, one that may finally be set to bring Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s duopoly on the global game to an end in 2018 and beyond.
However, while the early exits from World Cup 2018 of Argentina and Portugal may signal a changing of the old guard and have paved the way to glory for Mbappe and France, there remains a small yet mighty obstacle in the Paris Saint-Germain striker’s path towards claiming the Golden Ball – Croatia’s creator in chief.
The 32-year-old Modric has conjured some colossal performances in helping his nation into a first World Cup final in their fledgling history, prodding and probing defences to death as the unfancied Vatreni (the Blazers) fight for the chance to see how World Cup gold fits them this Sunday.
You cannot help but marvel at mainstays Ronaldo and Messi, who have been magnificent for the game. They have shared the last 10 Ballons d’Or between them – winning five apiece.
While it must be accepted, their dominance has also been somewhat monotonous as no other player has been able to shine in their considerable shadows.
But with the two heavyweights now watching from afar, Mbappe and Modric have made the stage their own. And the race between them is a close one. Both have bedazzled. Mbappe is still just about in with a shout of surpassing Harry Kane as top scorer – though he’ll need to score a hat-trick in the final and hope the Three Lions striker doesn’t roar against Belgium in Saturday’s third-place play-off. His three goals have come courtesy of only six shots, only one of which failed to find the target. Strike partner Antoine Griezmann also has three goals but has rained 20 shots down on goal. His 4.7 average dribbles per game leads France as does his 46 total dribbles, staggeringly 36 more than any other French player, with 28 successful. Against Belgium he delivered six key passes, three more than anyone else. And his blistering pace has caused no end of concern for defences, with Mbappe regularly gliding by defenders. Modric, meanwhile, has manipulated opponents as cunning and courageous Croatia have both blown away and broken down opponents – all three of their knockout stage encounters going to extra-time. England started brightly in Wednesday’s semi-final, but after failing to build on their one-goal lead, Modric was allowed to exert his excellence on the game after the interval.
At 63km, he has covered more distance than any player at this World Cup. He has also played 604 minutes, which is 49 more than anyone else. Unsurprisingly his 2.7 average key passes per game leads Croatia.
Mbappe’s brilliance is a clear indicator that sweeping change is imminent. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Griezmann (all 27), Neymar (26), Paul Pogba (25) and Harry Kane (24) have all simmered at some point in the Russian sun.
Of Mbappe’s generation, meanwhile, he has an able support cast in emerging talents Hirving Lozano (22), Ousmane Dembele, Gabriel Jesus ( both 21) and Marcus Rashford (20), all of whom may threaten future Ballon d’Or ballots.
But with the younger generation on the brink of taking over, it has been refreshing to see Modric’s magnificence come to the fore.
The Croatia of 2018 are already assured of outshining the country’s golden generation of 20 years ago, which featured such silky players as Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban. Modric is the master tailor of this generation and if he can stitch together his side on Sunday, it will be his greatest work.
Indeed if either can sprinkle their golden touch on the final, they may just be taking two trophies home with them.
Pace ace: Kylian Mbappe’s bewitching technical brilliance and quickness will be one of the true joys of Sunday’s World Cup final.