France Stand be­tween Croa­tia and History

…Bel­gium, England seek third-place con­so­la­tion

THISDAY - - GLOBAL SOCCER -

Aloaded team that’s rarely had to exit se­cond gear - France and an­other that ex­pended more en­ergy than any­one in the tour­na­ment -Croa­tia, will meet for the 21st World Cup cham­pi­onship. The matchup was set Wed­nes­day, as Croa­tia out­lasted England in ex­tra time at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow, the venue for the ti­tle game. France was a favourite be­fore the tour­na­ment and will re­main so on Sun­day, in part be­cause of its depth and tal­ent, and in part, be­cause it will en­ter the final so much fresher. But the re­silient and in­de­fati­ga­ble Croats won’t be an easy out.

The strength of both sides is the force and flair of their mid­field and flanks, where stars like France’s N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé, and Croa­tia’s Luka Mo­dri and Ivan Rak­iti have put their stamp on this World Cup.

This is the third all-Euro­pean final in the past four World Cups, and Croa­tia, a debu­tant at this stage is the 13th na­tion to reach a World Cup final.

Les Bleus came to Rus­sia fac­ing high ex­pec­ta­tions, es­pe­cially af­ter los­ing the Euro 2016 final on home soil. Noth­ing less than an ap­pear­ance at the Luzh­niki on Sun­day would’ve been ac­cept­able. And they came through, al­though not in the high-fly­ing fash­ion that their tal­ent and po­ten­tial might have sug­gested. Coach Di­dier Deschamps has opted for a bal­anced and con­ser­va­tive ap­proach, as France has grad­u­ally taken con­trol of games and found a way to score only the goals it has needed.

And sev­eral have come from more un­likely sources - cen­tre backs scored the quar­ter­fi­nal and semi­fi­nal win­ners.

While the 19-year-old Mbappé has fur­nished some mem­o­rable, high­light-reel mo­ments, for the most part, France is more clin­i­cal than cre­ative. But it’s been enough to book a trip to Moscow with­out much trou­ble, sur­viv­ing a tough knock­out-round road fea­tur­ing Ar­gentina, Uruguay, and Bel­gium.

While France has never looked like it was in too much trou­ble, Croa­tia seems to be in trou­ble con­stantly. The Va­treni were close to miss­ing out on Rus­sia al­to­gether, as for­mer coach Ante a i was fired just a cou­ple days be­fore their last sched­uled qual­i­fier. But they won 2-0 at Ukraine to book a play­off place and eased past Greece last Novem­ber. The tal­ent is there, start­ing with the ver­sa­tile, cere­bral and re­lent­less Mo­dri , who’s been a mas­sive part of Real Madrid’s three con­sec­u­tive Euro­pean ti­tles. And Croa­tia looked fan­tas­tic dur­ing this World Cup’s group stage. But the knock­out round has been an un­prece­dented grind, with in­fe­rior op­po­nents (on paper) tak­ing them to ex­tra time in all three games.

Croa­tia now has played a full 90 min­utes more than France. But it has also been tested in a way Les Bleus have not. If Croa­tia can clear one more hur­dle, it’ll make history.

Only top-tier coun­tries—the ones that de­velop tal­ent and con­tend for ti­tles con­sis­tently have won the World Cup. No “golden gen­er­a­tion” has ever done it. Croa­tia’s first such gen­er­a­tion made the semis in ’98, but then it failed to qual­ify or get out of the group stage for 20 years. This is the se­cond, and this is their chance.

Mean­while, Bel­gium and England meet for the se­cond time at this World Cup as they com­pete for third place in Rus­sia. The Red Devils were beaten by France be­fore Croa­tia bet­tered the Three Lions af­ter ex­tra time to set up to­day’s show­down.

England have a good record against Bel­gium, win­ning 15 of their 21 meet­ings against the Red Devils. The two na­tions have met twice at World Cups, with a 4-4 draw in 1954 and a 1-0 win for the Three Lions in 1990.

It, how­ever, re­mains to be seen if Roberto Martinez opts to ro­tate his squad or stick with a first-choice XI but Thomas Me­u­nier is avail­able again af­ter miss­ing the semi-final loss to France.

Nacer Chadli was in­ef­fec­tive in the po­si­tion on Tues­day, while Mousa Dem­bele failed to im­press in only his se­cond start of the tour­na­ment.

Gareth South­gate could also shuf­fle his pack af­ter the dis­ap­point­ment of miss­ing out on the final. The likes of Jamie Vardy, Gary Cahill, and Ruben Lof­tus-Cheek could all come in.

Kieran Trip­pier was nurs­ing a groin in­jury in the clos­ing stages against Croa­tia so may well not be risked for what is ef­fec­tively a dead rub­ber.

Croa­tia cel­e­brates their win­ning goal against England at the Semi-Final

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