France Stand between Croatia and History
…Belgium, England seek third-place consolation
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