World Cup fi­nal­ists of­fer no short­age of con­trasts

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Soc­cer -

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 win-loss record. The team has re­ceived goals from seven play­ers, only two of whom — cap­tain Luka Mo­dric and Perisic — have scored twice. Per­haps the most im­pres­sive num­ber for Croa­tia is 63, the num­ber of kilo­me­ters (39 miles) that Mo­dric, a mid­fielder, has cov­ered in this World Cup, more than 10 kilo­me­ters a game and by far the most of any player in the tour­na­ment.

Mem­bers of the two teams know each other well be­cause 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 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.

Martin Meiss­ner/As­so­ci­ated Press

France coach Di­dier Deschamps, right, em­braces An­toine Griez­mann af­ter a vic­tory Tues­day against Bel­gium put them in the World Cup fi­nal against Croa­tia.

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