Duro Ikhazuagbe in Moscow
Todayâ€™s final game of the 2018 World Cup between Croatia and France here at the 80,000-seating capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow is evoking memories of 1998 semi final clash between the two gladiators on parade this evening.
Twenty years ago, Croatia, attended her first World Cup after declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and fought a war of liberation till 1995. Technically, Croatia had barely three years of serious preparations before arriving in France for her debut at the global football showpiece.Â Croatia made history despite losing in the semi final to France.
In that epic semi final clash two decades ago at the Stade de France in St Denis, the first half ended goalless. The second half sprang into life with Croatiaâ€™s top goal scorer Davor Suker firing the Vatreni into the lead. Croatiaâ€™s advantage lasted only a minute though, as defender Lilian Thuram stole possession on top of Croatiaâ€™s penalty area before lashing home his first goal in a France shirt.
Incredibly, Thuram was not finished yet. He scored the winning goal in the 70th minute making it 2-1 with a curling shot that any striker would be proud of. That was how France ended the fairy-tale run of the new independent nation with this reporter in the Media Tribune that breezy evening in France.
Fast forward 20 years after, Croatia and France are here again not battling for the ticket to the final but aiming for the ultimate trophy. Will the battle-weary Croats succumb again like they did that night in St Denis or will they seek to avenge that defeat with a bigger price? Can Croatia do better than their heroes of â€˜98 – or will it be Didier Deschampsâ€™ day once again in world footballâ€™s biggest game?
Is Croatiaâ€™s Coach, Zlatko Dalic, having nightmare over statistics pointing out that the Vatreni have never beaten France before in any competitive?
Speaking at yesterdayâ€™s pre-match briefing, Dalic insisted that statistics and record are there to be broken. He insisted that Croatia have nothing to worry about going into this eveningâ€™s grand finale.
â€œStatistics and records are here to be broken. It does not matter who is our opponent in the final. It is our goal to give our best, the whole world will be watching Croatia. We came here to enjoy the game and to win it. My players have played a lot of matches in the Champions League – including finals – but this is the biggest game of their careers,â€ stressed Dalic who unlike Deschamps never had the opportunity to play for Croatia.
Croatiaâ€™s route to this final has been littered with sweat and blood just like the countryâ€™s road to freedom. The Vatreni have played all their last three matches to this final in extra time!Â This â€˜golden generationâ€™ led by Luka Modric, will not be overawed by the fact they are simply in the final; Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic have already scored goals in past UEFA Champions League finals and this game appears not different from the stage they have strut their skills at club levels.
Deschamps is expected to stick with the formation and line-up that has served him so well to this final. That means a 4-2-3-1 with Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. The striker is doing great work to put the opposition defenders under pressure and create space for Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe to combine. Much has been made of the fact that he still hasnâ€™t scored any goals at this World Cup? But so what – Les Bleus became world champions in 1998 without any goals from their No 9, Stephane Guivarcâ€™h!Â To get here, Luka Modric and company topped their Group D by beating Nigeria, Argentina, and Iceland. However, the knockout stages put Croatia through the wringer. They needed penalties to beat Denmark and hosts Russia before edging out England 2-1 with an extra-time winner from Mario Mandzukic.
France on the other hand, finished top of Group C by beating Australia and Peru before a goalless draw with Denmark to clinch the number one spot. Their most challenging game of the tournament thus far was arguably the 4-3 win over South American giants Argentina in the last 16.
Les Bleus were level at 2-2 with the Albiceleste, but a brace from Kylian Mbappe saw them secure the win before a consolation strike from Sergio Aguero. They then beat Uruguay 2-0 in the quarter final before clinching the ticket to the final with a 1-0 defeat of star-studded Belgium.
The Finalistsâ€™ Keepers: Lloris v Subasic
While the headlines will be dominated by outfield stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Luka Modric, France and Croatia can thank their goalkeepers for their spots in the upcoming FIFA World Cup Final. Both Hugo Lloris and Danijel Subasic have been in top form for their respective sides, producing a steady supply of miraculous saves and penalty heroics respectively en route to todayâ€™s decider.
What he brings to France: Hugo Lloris has brought France consistency in a position where that was most definitely required. He became the teamâ€™s No1 as far back as 2009 and has accrued vast experience in the near-decade since. Against Belgium, he made his 103rd appearance for Les Bleus, which is a notable milestone as he equalled coach Didier Deschampsâ€™ final caps haul having already become the most-capped keeper in Franceâ€™s history.
At 31, he is in his goalkeeping prime and, as we have seen during this World Cup, there is no sign of his skill level dropping or his reflexes slowing. But Llorisâ€™ importance isnâ€™t merely as a good goalkeeper. He is a confidant of Deschamps and also holds the record for most appearances as France captain (79).
Lloris is one of the true heroes of Les Bleusâ€™ Russia 2018 campaign thus far. His saves have proved crucial in securing the team vital results in matches against Peru, Uruguay and Belgium.â€
Best save at Russia 2018
â€œThere have been a few but the best came in the Round of 16 against against Uruguay, a few minutes before the end of the first half. The game was tense and France had only recently gone 1-0 up. Martin Caceres ran past Paul Pogba and rose higher than everyone to bullet in a powerful header. It looked certain to hit the net but Lloris produced an amazing horizontal leap to claw it away. After the match, Deschamps said: â€œItâ€™s not a save – itâ€™s almost a goal!â€
What he brings to Croatia: Danijel Subasic is having a very strong World Cup. Croatia conceded just a single goal in their first three games as they cruised to the top of a very tough Group D, and Subasic played no small role in that achievement. Penalty shootouts are another story. Croatia won their Round of 16 game against Denmark 3-2 on penalties and then 4-3 via the same method against Russia in the quarter-finals. Subasic became just the second goalkeeper to save four or more spot-kicks in a World Cup penalty shoot-out and has established himself as a real expert in that respect.
Best save at Russia 2018: Subasic showed his versatility when he saved three penalties against Denmark. He tipped the first penalty during that shootout from Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen on to the post. He then dived to his right to save an attempt from substitute Lasse Schone. Finally, he used his feet to block Nicolai Jorgensenâ€™s attempt. But Subasic was injured during the shootout against Russia and perhaps his save against Fedor Smolov is the most famous. It was a bizarre half-Panenka attempt by the Russian, who tried to get Subasic to dive before chipping down the middle. But Smolov failed to direct his effort in the centre of goal, and Subasic adjusted his dive to make the save.
ROAD TO FINAL
Croatia 2 – 0 Nigeria
Croatia 3 – 0 Argentina
Croatia 2 – 1 Iceland
Croatia 1-1 Denmark – (3-2 on penalties)
Croatia 2-2 Russia (4-3 on penalties)
Croatia 2-1 England (AET)
Â FACT: Croatia is the first team to avoid defeat after trailing in three knockout matches at a single World Cup.
Â Â Â Â GROUP C
Â Â Â Â France Â 2 – 1 Â Â Â Australia
Â Â Â Â FranceÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1 – 0 Â Â Â Peru
Â Â Â Â FranceÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 0 – 0 Â Â Â Denmark
Â Â Â Â LAST 16
Â Â Â Â FranceÂ Â 4 – 3 Â Â Â Argentina
Â Â Â Â
Â Â Â Â Qâ€™FINAL
Â Â Â Â Uruguay Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 0 – 2 Â Â Â France
Â Â Â Â Sâ€™FINAL
Â Â Â Â FranceÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 1 – 0Â Â Â Belgium
FACT: Didier Deschamps, will become the third man after Mario Zagallo (Brazil) and Franz Beckenbauer (Germany) to win the World Cup as both player/coach after the success he had against Brazil with Les Bleus at the 1998 final at home.