France, Croa­tia vie for ti­tle

Stars Mbappe, Mo­dric will play a big­ger role in World Cup final

Albuquerque Journal - - SPORTS - AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

MOSCOW — Kylian Mbappe has elec­tri­fied the World Cup with his speed and youth­ful ex­u­ber­ance. Luka Mo­dric has coolly con­trolled matches in Rus­sia with his grace­ful play in the mid­dle.

Whether France wins its se­cond ti­tle in 20 years or Croa­tia raises the tro­phy for the first time Sun­day at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in front of Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and nearly a bil­lion tele­vi­sion view­ers could turn on the play of the two stars.

The 19-year-old Mbappe has been the big­gest sen­sa­tion at the tour­na­ment in Rus­sia, scor­ing three goals — in­clud­ing two against Ar­gentina in the round of 16 — and cre­at­ing havoc for op­pos­ing de­fenses with his pace and his agility.

“It’s go­ing to be the big­gest match of my life, for sure,” the Paris Sain­tGer­main for­ward said Fri­day.

Al­though Mbappe has im­pressed for France at the

month-long tour­na­ment, Mo­dric has been the rock and the spark for Croa­tia. When the Real Madrid mid­fielder has the ball at feet, good things seem to hap­pen for Croa­tia.

“Even when you think they’re go­ing to lose, or go­ing to crack, they al­ways have the men­tal­ity to come back,” Mbappe said of the Croa­t­ian team. “It’s a team that plays with a lot of in­ten­sity.”

France last won the World Cup ti­tle in 1998, at home. The French de­feated Croa­tia in the semi­fi­nals that year, which un­til now had been the coun­try’s best show­ing at the tour­na­ment.

The heads of state from both coun­tries are ex­pected to sit with Putin. Will Smith is set to head­line the clos­ing cer­e­mony.

Croa­tia, a coun­try of 4.5 million peo­ple which gained in­de­pen­dence from the for­mer Yu­goslavia only 27 years ago, en­ters the final af­ter play­ing three straight ex­tra­time matches, in­clud­ing two nerve-rack­ing penalty shootouts.

In all three of those matches, Croa­tia has had to re­cover from be­ing a goal down. The play­ers never gave up.

“When you put the sa­cred Croa­tia shirt on you be­come a dif­fer­ent per­son,” Croa­tia mid­fielder Ivan Rakitic said through a trans­la­tor. “I’m not try­ing to say it’s a su­pe­rior feel­ing that the French have for France, or Rus­sians for Rus­sia.

“The best feel­ing is to be Croat these days and this is the source of all our strength.”

THIRD-PLACE GAME: How do you stay mo­ti­vated for the game no one wants to play? England and Bel­gium have dif­fer­ent an­swers.

Af­ter both were elim­i­nated in the World Cup semi­fi­nals, a once-in-a-life­time chance gone, the teams have to play again in to­day’s third-place game in St. Peters­burg.

As al­ways in English foot­ball, coach Gareth South­gate and his men are look­ing back to the England team which won the World Cup in 1966. Beat­ing Bel­gium to­day would give England its best World Cup fin­ish since then, sur­pass­ing fourth place in Italy in 1990.

“We have a chance to win a medal at a World Cup, which only one English team has ever done, so there’s a lot of mo­ti­va­tion for us,” South­gate said Fri­day. Af­ter ex­ceed­ing ex­pec­ta­tions by reach­ing the semi­fi­nal, only to lose 2-1 to Croa­tia in ex­tra time, England wants to keep its pos­i­tive buzz.

“None of us knows if that’s as good as it gets,” South­gate said. “We’ve raised ex­pec­ta­tion and I don’t see a prob­lem with that be­cause we’ve also raised be­lief. We’ve raised their en­joy­ment of play­ing. They now as­so­ci­ated play­ing for England with en­joy­ment, fun, and not be­ing un­der siege.”

For Bel­gium coach Roberto Martinez, it’s about leav­ing Rus­sia with a warm feel­ing and play­ing at­trac­tive foot­ball to in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion.

“We want to win. When you fin­ish a tour­na­ment you carry the feel­ing of the last game … Ev­ery Bel­gian fan de­serves that win­ning feel­ing,” he said. “For us the way you play is es­sen­tial, not just for this tour­na­ment but for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

Third would be Bel­gium’s best-ever World Cup per­for­mance. It fin­ished fourth in 1986 af­ter los­ing the play­off to France.

Both coaches have one eye on fit­ness for what will be each team’s sev­enth game in 26 days.

South­gate said he wants to make “as few changes as pos­si­ble,” but may need to switch some play­ers due to in­jury and ill­ness. He wouldn’t con­firm whether he’d give ei­ther of his re­serve goal­keep­ers, Jack But­land and Nick Pope, their first game of the tour­na­ment in place of Jor­dan Pick­ford.

“We need to have ev­ery­one fully fit on the pitch. There are play­ers who have played a lot of min­utes and we need to have that in mind,” Martinez said. “We’re go­ing to have the strong­est team on the pitch but maybe changes will need to be made.”

It’s the se­cond meet­ing of the tour­na­ment for the two teams.

Their first game, in the group stage, was treated al­most like a friendly since both teams had al­ready qual­i­fied and made a to­tal 17 changes to the lineup. Bel­gium won that en­counter in Kalin­ingrad 1-0 thanks to a curled shot from Ad­nan Januzaj.

Kylian Mbappe Luka Mo­dric

FRAN­CISCO SECO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

England’s Harry Kane, right, led his team to the third-place game of the World Cup to­day against Bel­gium.

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