Despite being the smallest nation to reach a World Cup final since Uruguay back in 1950, Croatia coach Zlato Dalic believes Croatia have what it takes to win the World Cup trophy today in Moscow.
Dalic compared Croatia’s run in Russia to that of a fellow Mediterranean country that surprised the football world at UEFA EURO 2004.
“I see the connection between Croatia now and Greece in 2004, although they are two different styles of football,” he said. “No one believed that they could be the (European) champions, but they were compact and had great teamwork.”
Both France and Croatia have compelling evidence to prove they will be worthy winners as they face off in an eagerly anticipated match.
France are a football powerhouse that have reached to World Cup finals – winning one – and also got to the finals of Euro 2016 which they hosted but lost to Portugal despite being favourites.
At this tournament, they have progressed to the final with minimal fuss, dispatching illustrious opponents in Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium with relative ease in the knockout stage.
Thus they are the fresher of the two sides and have had one more day to recover. Besides, they have Kylian Mbappe and Ngolo Kante in scintillating form, the former the world’s most exciting teenager and one of the players of the tournament, while the latter is a tireless ball winner that shields his defence superbly.
On the other hand, Croatia are a group of experienced superstars who play for elite teams in Europe and have been together as a unit for years. They have incredible fighting spirit and never give in, as their previous knockout games show. Mario Manduzkic has scored in two Champions League finals (for Bayern Munich and Juventus), Ivan Rakitic in another for Barcelona.
While many think a cumulative 90 minutes extra in their knockout matches will see them arrive the final jaded, It is a testament of their incredible fitness, resolve, belief and mental strength which should stand them in good stead in a finely-balanced final that may be decided by which team holds its nerve best.
While these are two star-studded outfits, Luka Modric and Kylian Mbappe are standout stars for their respective teams.
Modric helped Croatia overcome a one-goal deficit to beat England 2-1 in extra-time and qualify for their first World Cup final on Wednesday evening.
The veteran playmaker has made a big impression on the world stage this summer, being instrumental during their clean sweep of wins in Group D and smashing a long-range stunner against Argentina.
Modric has influenced games by taking a squad-topping 535 touches – only bettered by Spain’s tiki-taka specialists Isco and Sergio Ramos across the tournament.
In addition, the 32-year-old ranks fourth across the entire tournament for sweeping up loose balls with 48 recoveries.
Those stats alone would boost any side in Russia but his contribution in front of goal has also been world class, creating 16 chances for his team – behind only Neymar (23), Kevin De Bruyne and Kieran Trippier (both 17).
In addition to his wonder goal, Modric also converted a penalty to secure three points in the group opener against Nigeria’s Super Eagles – maintaining composure to double the lead and set the tone for their current six-game win streak.
Meanwhile, Mbappe – who hit the headlines after shining for Monaco during their Champions League campaign in 2016/17, before signing for Paris Saint-Germain on loan last summer and securing a £166m permanent move – again stunned the world during a pulsating 4-3 win over Argentina, bursting at breathtaking speed from the halfway line before being dragged down for a penalty.
Mbappe later went on to score two of his own in the second half. He terrified defences in Russia with a tournament-topping 52 dribbles – surpassing Neymar (46) and Eden Hazard (43) during his 444 minutes on the pitch.
The 19-year-old is the second-youngest player in Russia after Australia midfielder Daniel Arzani, offering an abundance of youthful energy and endurance – facets particularly useful during the gruelling knockout schedule at a World Cup.
Despite his age and agile frame, one lesser-known quality is the Frenchman’s ability in the challenge, winning 47 duels – only eight players across the competition have managed more.
France: Hugo Lloris; Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Lucas Hernandez; Paul Pogba, Ngolo Kante; Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi; Olivier Giroud.
Croatia: Danijel Subasic; Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida, Ivan Strinic; Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozovic; Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic; Mario Mandzukic.
Key Battles in France-Croatia
Kante v Modric
The most intriguing battle will take place in midfield, where two of the tournament’s outstanding players will go up against each other. Modric has been the driving force behind Croatia’s charge to the final, playing more minutes than any other player in Russia, but he faces his toughest test yet against the irrepressible Kante.
Kante has been instrumental for France, breaking up play in typically tireless fashion at the base of their midfield and providing a platform for Paul Pogba to shine. According to Opta, only Russia’s Roman Zobnin has made a higher combined total of tackles and interceptions than Kante since the tournament began. He will need to continue in the same vein today.
Modric has struggled when deployed in a deep-lying role by Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, but when Marcelo Brozovic has played behind him, as he did against England and as he surely will do against France, he has been freed up to control games. So far in Russia, Croatia have dominated possession in five games out of six.
Modric has been at the heart of more or less everything. As well as playing more minutes and covering more ground than any of his team-mates, he has played the most passes, created the most chances and even scored the joint-most goals. Stop him and France will go a long way to stopping Croatia. Few players are better-equipped for the job than Kante.
Varane v Mandzukic
Mario Mandzukic has been excellent in Russia and brings considerable pedigree to the centre-forward role. He was in the right place and the right time to score against Denmark in the last 16, and his semi-final winner against England was another example of his nose for goal.
In Raphael Varane, he will face a familiar foe. Mandzukic has come up against the Real Madrid centre-back on a number of occasions at club level, including the second leg of last season’s Champions League semi-final at the Bernabeu, when he scored twice as Juventus agonisingly missed out on a place in the final.
One of Mandzukic’s biggest strengths is his aerial strength, but Varane will hope to match him at the Luzhniki Stadium. According to Opta, the 25-year-old is one of only six players to have won more aerial duels than him over the course of the World Cup.
Varane is one of only two players to have played every minute of France’s World Cup campaign along with Kante, but judging by his imperious performance against Romelu Lukaku and Belgium in the semi-final, fatigue is unlikely to be an issue against Croatia. France will need more of the same from him against the in-form Mandzukic.