I say France but ...

Jamaica Gleaner - - SPORTS - Orville Hig­gins

TO­MOR­ROW THE FIFA World Cup will come to an end when France meet Croa­tia in the fi­nal.

With­drawal symp­toms are al­ready start­ing to set in. This tour­na­ment has been a strange com­bi­na­tion of the un­pre­dictable and the ex­pected. Ger­many, Ar­gentina and of course Brazil were all ex­pected to go fur­ther. It’s the first time that these three coun­tries have all been out of the semi-fi­nals in the same tour­na­ment. No­body could have seen that com­ing. In a way though, the World Cup fi­nals have fol­lowed a fa­mil­iar script. When the tour­na­ment is played in Europe in­evitably a Euro­pean team takes the top prize. In an all Euro­pean fi­nal the trend will con­tinue.

Of all the World Cup fi­nals in mod­ern times this one is the least “sexy” in terms of an an­tic­i­pated spec­ta­cle. I have not heard one sin­gle per­son who se­ri­ously feel Croa­tia will win. Go­ing as far back as 1982 the fi­nal of the World Cup usu­ally sees two foot­ball power houses go­ing up against each other. This time, the World Cup fi­nal is like the sport­ing equiv­a­lent to David and Go­liath.

If the game was to be played on pa­per France would win at a can­ter. This French team is ar­guably the most tal­ented, man for man, in the world at the mo­ment. When a coun­try can un­leash Hugo Lloris, Ben­jamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Sa­muel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, Lu­cas Her­nan­dez, Blaise Ma­tu­idi, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and An­toine Griez­mann, then the other team will have it dif­fi­cult.

The game, how­ever, will not be played on pa­per. Upsets hap­pen and Croa­tia have showed that they are a tough re­silient bunch who are pre­pared to scrap and scrape to the bit­ter end. Croa­tia do not have the same glit­ter­ing ar­ray of stars but in names like Dani­jel Suba­sic, De­jan Lovren,Do­magoj Vida, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozivic, Luka Mo­dric, I van Perisic, Ante Re­bic and Mario Mandzu­kic they can push France all the way.

LESSONS TO LEARN

What l es­sons can we take from how the teams got to the fi­nal? France fin­ished atop Group C with seven points. In the first round they beat Aus­tralia 2-1, edged Peru 1-0 be­fore play­ing to that dull 0-0 draw with Den­mark with a sec­ond round slot al­ready se­cured. In the knock­outs they beat Ar­gentina 4-3, blanked Uruguay 2-0, and then clipped the high rid­ing Bel­gium in the semis 1-0. I had picked Bel­gium to win the whole thing and I am now feel­ing that any­one who can beat Bel­gium with their galaxy of star play­ers can­not be stopped.

Croa­tia’s path was not nearly as smooth. They were ef­fi­cient in the open­ing salvos. In the group stages they beat Nige­ria 2-0, de­mol­ished Ar­gentina 3-0 and then edged Ice­land 2-1. In the round of 16 they played out a 1-1 draw with Den­mark in reg­u­lar and ex­tra time be­fore pre­vail­ing 3-2 on penal­ties. Their quar­ter fi­nal game against the spir­ited Russians also went to penal­ties af­ter a 2-2 score­line. This time Croa­tia again showed nerves of steel to win the penal­ties 4-3.

Against Eng­land in the semis Croa­tia again had to go be­yond 90 min­utes. I t was 1-1 af­ter reg­u­lar time be­fore Croa­tia scored in ex­tra time to send home Eng­land 2-1. You could make the case that Croa­tia have played an­other 90 min­utes of foot­ball out­side their sched­uled clashes! Over­all then France scored ten goals on their way to the fi­nal, con­ced­ing four, while Croa­tia scored 12 in reg­u­lar time while con­ced­ing five. These num­bers are too close for us to build a mon­u­ment on them but it must be said that France cer­tainly had the more dif­fi­cult route to the fi­nal. France are ex­pected to win in reg­u­lar time but if it goes to ex­tra time and penal­ties then Croa­tia def­i­nitely would have a real shot. The greater pres­sure in a shootout would be on France and pres­sure does funny things to play­ers from the penalty spot This Croa­t­ian team does not have the same swag­ger as France but they ap­pear to be just as tough men­tally and maybe as fit as any team at the tour­na­ment. It will come down to the slick qual­ity of France ver­sus the de­ter­mined never say die at­ti­tude of the Croa­t­ians.

KANTE’S ROLE

The key player for France will be N’golo Kante for me. He is the glue that holds the French team to­gether. His work may some­times go un­no­ticed but he does all the dirty work in the mid­dle. His tack­ling and his ball win­ning abil­ity along with his end­less en­ergy al­lows the more cre­ative play­ers to con­cen­trate on their job higher up the park. Mo­dric is the man for Croa­tia. He isn’t as flashy as the Mes­sis and Ron­al­dos of this world but he is a sound tac­ti­cian. He is qui­etly ef­fi­cient and his de­ci­sion mak­ing is among the best in the world. The game may well boil down to that bat­tle in mid­field be­tween Kante and Mo­dric. Who­ever wins that bat­tle should be on the team hoist­ing the tro­phy. It is ironic that the smooth French team has a rugged hard run­ning player like Kante run­ning the show while the work­man-like Croa­t­ians have such a ball artist as slick as Mo­dric pulling the strings. It al­most ap­pears that these two would be more read­ily iden­ti­fi­able in the other team.

So yes France should win and lift the tro­phy a sec­ond time. The re­sult is, how­ever, not writ­ten in stone. In­ter­est­ingly both teams played Ar­gentina in this tour­na­ment. France held on ner­vously for a 4-3 win while the Croa­t­ians were all over Ar­gentina 3-0.

Can we take any­thing from that? Do those re­sults sug­gest that this fi­nal may well be closer than it looks? Will David Slew Go­liath again or will one of the pre tour­na­ment favourites be lift­ing the tro­phy? I say France, but ....

Croa­tia’s Luka Mo­dric

N’golo Kante of France

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