Odd cou­ple to bat­tle it out

Lit­tle in com­mon for Cup fi­nal­ists France, Croa­tia

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD CUP - By Kevin Bax­ter As­so­ci­ated Press contributed

MOSCOW — Never has there been a World Cup fi­nal be­tween such widely dis­parate teams as the France- Croa­tia matchup on Sun­day.

France is an es­tab­lished soc­cer power, play­ing in its third ti­tle game in 20 years. With a pop­u­la­tion of 67 mil­lion, it has sent 204 play­ers to the World Cup since 2002, the most of any coun­try. And its na­tional team play­ers’ trans­fer fees are worth more than $1.2 bil­lion col­lec­tively.

Croa­tia wasn’t even an es­tab­lished coun­try, much less a soc­cer power, a gen­er­a­tion ago. With a pop­u­la­tion of just more than 4 mil­lion, it is the sec­onds­mall­est na­tion to make a World Cup fi­nal, and the play­ers on its team are worth $339 mil­lion.

All of which gives Croa­tia the ad­van­tage, said de­fender De­jan Lovren.

“We love to be the un­der­dogs,” he said. Croa­tia is de­cid­edly that. That char­ac­ter has been on great dis­play here, be­cause if France has yet to be beaten in Rus­sia, Croa­tia has re­fused to lose.

Both teams won their groups, but in the knock­out stages France ral­lied to beat Ar­gentina, then shut out both Uruguay and Bel­gium. Croa­tia, mean­while, trailed in all three of its knock­out games be­fore win­ning each in ei­ther ex­tra time or in a penalty- kick shootout, mak­ing it the first team in World Cup his­tory to win three straight ex­tra-time games and the first to over­come three deficits en route to the fi­nal.

That also means Croa­tia has played 360 min­utes in the knock­out rounds, the equiv­a­lent of one more full game than France, which also had an ex­tra day of rest be­tween its semi­fi­nal and “No mat­ter what hap­pens in the fi­nal, this is the great­est suc­cess story in Croa­t­ian sport,” said cap­tain Luka Mo­dric, left. the fi­nal.

Given the speed and phys­i­cal­ity of a French at­tack led by An­toine Griez­mann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba, fa­tigue could be a prob­lem for Croa­tia.

France’s de­fense has proved dif­fi­cult to break down. It gave up one goal in the group stage then strug­gled a bit with Ar­gentina in the fi­nal 16, giv­ing up goals just be­fore and af­ter the in­ter­mis­sion to trail for the only time in the tour­na­ment.

The deficit lasted only nine min­utes, with two goals by Mbappe four min­utes apart restor­ing or­der. France then shut out its last two op­po­nents, with goal­keeper Hugo Lloris mak­ing seven saves. And the French did all of that against tougher com­pe­ti­tion than the Croa­t­ians faced.

“They have upped their game over the past sev­eral games,” Croa­tia’s Ivan Perisic said.

Croa­tia can’t re­ally point to any com­pelling sta­tis­tics other than its win-loss record. The team has got­ten goals from seven play­ers, only two of whom — cap­tain Luka Mo­dric and Perisic — have scored twice. Per­haps the most im­pres­sive num­ber for Croa­tia is 39, the num­ber of miles that Mo­dric, a mid­fielder, has cov­ered in this World Cup, more than six miles a game and by far the most of any player in the tour­na­ment.

Mem­bers of the two teams know each other well since many play with or against one an­other in Spain’s La Liga. Griez­mann, for ex­am­ple, is a team­mate of Croa­t­ian de­fender Sime Vr­saljko at Atletico Madrid, Croa­tia’s Ivan Rakitic plays with France’s Sa­muel Umtiti at Barcelona, and Mo­dric has won four Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals along­side France’s Raphael Varane at Real Madrid.

“I would trade all four ti­tles for this one,” Mo­dric told re­porters. “No mat­ter what hap­pens in the fi­nal, this is the great­est suc­cess story in Croa­t­ian sport. But we all have the de­sire to be the cham­pi­ons. We are full of con­fi­dence, we have char­ac­ter and we have every­thing a team needs to be world cham­pi­ons.”

Croa­tia has skilled play­ers at vir­tu­ally every po­si­tion, al­low­ing it to adapt to dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios. In the first two games it trailed, it scored an equal­izer in less than 10 min­utes. Af­ter a bru­tal first half in its semi­fi­nal against Eng­land, Croa­tia re­grouped at half­time and con­trolled the game the rest of the way.

Croa­tia, though, has never beaten France, go­ing 0-3-2 in five meet­ings dat-

France vs. Croa­tia 11 a.m. Sun­day Games on FOX ing to the World Cup semi­fi­nals in 1998, Croa­tia’s first ap­pear­ance in the tour­na­ment as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion.

No one on the Croa­t­ian side has for­got­ten that 2-1 loss, a game in which cur­rent French coach Di­dier Deschamps played. France went on to win the ti­tle, its only World Cup crown.

“I was only 9. I re­mem­ber my mom was scream­ing, she was cry­ing af­ter the French game,” Lovren said. “Af­ter 20 years, peo­ple will re­mem­ber us, not ’98. And this is what I wanted.”

France has its own painful mem­o­ries to erase. Two years ago, in the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship they hosted, Les Bleus lost the fi­nal to Por­tu­gal 1-0 on a goal four min­utes into the sec­ond ex­tra-time pe­riod. It was France’s sec­ond loss in three ma­jor tour­na­ment fi­nals and it made this gen­er­a­tion the first in 18 years with­out a tro­phy.

“Two years ago it was tough,” said Lloris. “We don’t want it to hap­pen again. We want it to end in the best way.”

Eng­land coach Gareth South­gate said he wants to make only a few changes for his team’s third-place match against Bel­gium.

South­gate said “It won’t be ex­actly the same start­ing 11, but we want ideally to make as few changes as pos­si­ble. One or two in­juries, one or two with a lit­tle ill­ness.”

South­gate says de­spite los­ing to Croa­tia, Eng­land re­mains mo­ti­vated by the thought of achiev­ing the na­tion’s best World Cup fin­ish since vic­tory in 1966.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/GETTY-AFP

Bel­gium vs. Eng­land 10 a.m. to­day

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