France bat­tle-tested but Croa­tia lived through war

FINAL: SUN­DAY AT LUZH­NIKI STA­DIUM, MOSCOW 8 A.M. PDT, CHAN­NEL 11, TELE­MU­NDO Un­der­dogs of sec­onds­mall­est na­tion to get to the final be­lieve their men­tal­ity gives them an ad­van­tage.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

MOSCOW — There has never been a World Cup final be­tween such widely dis­parate teams as France and Croa­tia, who play for the ti­tle on Sun­day.

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

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

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

“We love to be the un­der­dogs,” he said.

Croa­tia is de­cid­edly that. does have a huge ad­van­tage in one area.

“Our men­tal­ity,” Lovren said of a mind-set and tough­ness forged in a civil war many of the play­ers lived through.

“War, all these things, and even now the sit­u­a­tion is not the best,” he said. “It’s un­be­liev­able how many tal­ents we have in sports.”

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 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 won-loss record. The team has got­ten goals from seven play­ers, only two of whom have scored twice: cap­tain Luka Mo­dric and Perisic. 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 among the most by any player in the tour­na­ment.

The teams know each other well since many of their mem­bers play 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, never has beaten France, go­ing 03-2 dat­ing 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 rolled into the final only to lose to Por­tu­gal 1-0 on a goal four min­utes into the se­cond ex­tra­time 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 to call its own.

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

Kirill Kudryavtsev AFP/Getty

IVAN PERISIC and Croa­tia raised their game to reach the final.

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