World Cup Match Previews
Russia 2018 : July 15th
by John Spillane
World Cup Final / Sunday 15th July
FIFA World Cup final
France v Croatia, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Sunday July 15th, kick off 4pm
Stade de France, Saint Denis, July 8th 1998. World Cup semi-final. Eight years on from gaining independence Croatia, having led through a strike from Davor Suker (now President of Croatian FA) are pegged back and then overhauled. The unlikely source of both goals was full back Lillian Thuram, who would finish his international career with just those two goals from 104 appearances. France, captained by current coach Didier Deschamps, proceed to beat Brazil 3-0 in the final, while Croatia overcome Holland 2-1 for the consolation prize of third place. 20 years later and the two sides are meeting again but this time it’s for the top prize.
France, looking to draw level with Argentina and Uruguay as two time winners (Brazil 5, Italy & Germany 4) come into this match looking to make up for the disappointment of Euro 2016 where they finished runner up on home soil. Just like today, they were clear favourites going into the final against a Portuguese side which had needed extra time (last 16; Croatia) and penalties (qf; Poland) in two of the three previous knockout rounds. Despite seeing Cristiano Ronaldo leave the game early with an injury, they lost to the only goal of the game, scored by substitute Eder in the 109th minute. This time a much changed squad, including nine players from 2016, will hope to complete the job.
Much like two years ago, France have got to the final without being overly impressive. Of their six matches so far, they have a record of W5, D1 (2-1, 1-0, 0-0, 4-3, 2-0, 1-0) but only the 2-0 quarter final victory over Uruguay has been by greater than the minimum margin. Other than the 4-3 victory over Argentina they have been happy to sit on a lead and trust in their young defence to get them over the line. Raphael Varane (injured two years ago), Samuel Umtiti, along with full backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez have protected the goal of captain Hugo Lloris, who has come to the fore when required. The central midfield of N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi isn’t showy but covers acres of ground and doesn’t give the opposition time on the ball. They allow Paul Pogba the freedom, when appropriate, to link with playmaker Antoine Griezmann and the exciting Kylian Mbappe, joint top scorers on three goals. The lone central striker Olivier Giroud may yet to have had a shot on target, but is a force to be reckoned with at both ends of the pitch in an unselfish role; creating space, linking the play and offering an aerial threat.
Three comebacks after conceding the opening goal, three extra time games in a row and two penalty shootouts. Croatia have certainly not taken the easy route during the knockout phase. Whether they are just slow starters or need to be spurred into action by adversity it is a high risk strategy which has just about worked to this point. With a population of 4.1 million, they are only the second country from eastern Europe to make the final (Czechoslovakia losing finalists in 1962)
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Considered by many to be suffering fatigue, and somewhat fortunate to be only one goal behind, they were 20 minutes from elimination to England on Wednesday night. Then Ivan Perisic connected with a right wing cross from the dangerous Sime Vrsaljko, who wasn’t even expected to start the game. From that point on, apart from the odd set piece, they were in control. Luka Modric amd Marcelo Brozovic who had looked so quiet in the opening 45 minutes were now feeding full backs Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic at every opportunity. This enabled them both to get forward to feed Perisic, Ante Rebic and Mario Mandzukic. The extra time goal from Mandzukic, taking advantage of slight defensive hesitation, left England with 12 minutes to save the game. However the big match experience accumulated over years saw them manage the remaining minutes by breaking up the play, disrupting the flow and slowing the game down at every opportunity. Defensive midfielder Brozovic covered a tournament record breaking 16.6km, while Luka Modric brought his overall numbers to a leading 63km, just ahead of Kante 62.7km. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida, will go toe to toe physically with Giroud, but will fear the pace of Mbappe. Goal keeper Danijel Subasic, penalty shootout hero, looked to have trouble moving in the semi-final.
Modric and Varane having won the Champions league with Real Madrid, are hoping to become only the ninth player to pick up the two trophies in the same year joining the likes of former Real Madrid players Roberto Carlos (Brazil 2002) and Christian Karembeu (France 1998). The other six were members of the Bayern Munich/West Germany team of 1974, including captain Franz Beckenbauer and the two goal scorers against Holland, Gerd Muller and Paul Breitner. Coach Didier Deschamps can become just the third man to be coach and a player on the winning side, joining Beckenbauer (also captain) and Brazilian Mario Zagalo.
In five previous contests between the two France are unbeaten (W3, D2) but in a close contest the decisive battles to play out will feature Kante and Modric for control in midfield, the pace of Mbappe against Vida or Rebic and Perisic against the French full backs. Whoever gains a slight advantage in these matchups may find themselves crowned World Champions.
Two things which will give Croatia a lift are that the winners in 1958, 1978 and 1998 were doing so for the first time. The last three winners have also had a poor recent record against their opponent. These games are often tight with the last three (6 of last 13) finals going beyond the 90 minutes. Whether it is Hugo Lloris or Luka Modric to follow Germany’s Philip Lahm in receiving the Jules Rimet trophy may be decided by a moment of genius or a mistake, but that’s football.
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