Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Finalists: France-Croatia

The World Cup has reached the final stage, and after the two all-European semifinals we have an all-European final between France and Croatia.
This will be the second World Cup final for France (having won in 1998), while Croatia makes it to their first World Cup final ever, after they took the world with storm in their first World Cup, also in 1998. In fact, the 1998 World Cup semifinal between France and Croatia was the first time the two teams faced one another, with France winning. Since then, the sides have faced one another four times, with two victories for France (friendlies in 1999 and 2000) and two ties (2-2 at the 2004 European Championships and 0-0 in a friendly in 2011), so Croatia will not only be looking for the world title, but also for their first victory over France.

Neither team has been overly impressing in a World Cup that has been more about organization, defending and set-piece goals. In fact, no team has stood out in this World Cup, that is unlikely to be remembered for any genius on the pitch. France won all their matches in ordinary time except for a boring 0-0 against Denmark, but not in an impressive manner, although they have always looked like possible champions. In particular their central defenders in Rafael Varane and Samuel Umtiti have been impressive, but also their young backs Benjamin Pavard (remember his goal against Argentina?) and Lucas Hernandez have been fantastic. In midfield the ever-working N'golo Kante has shown on the world stage why he has for a few years been the highest rated player of the Premier League, while Paul Pogba has shown what all the hype about him was about. And then we have the genius of the young Kylian Mbappe and the hard work of Antoine Griezmann to create a team that in my view looks like world champions and set to dominate the world stage for years to come.
Croatia's way to the final has been more complicated: they won their group with three straight victories over Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland, but then struggled to defeat Denmark as well as Russia after penalty kicks, where the Monaco goalkeeper Daniel Subasic has been the saviour. But that is not to say that there are not other players: Dejan Lovren has been a solid and experienced defender, while Luka Modric has stood out as perhaps the best player of the tournament. Ivan Perisic has also been outstanding, while Ante Rebic is probably going to be in the sight of bigger clubs than Eintracht Frankfurt. The veteran Mario Mandzukic has been working hard in all matches and scored a deserved winner over England. Although they look more tired than the French, they are a more experienced and patient side, which they showed by their victory over England in the semifinals. That will be their greatest chance.

If I bet, I would put my money on France. But I will probably be supporting Croatia because it would be great to see a small country of 4 million people take the greatest title of world football.

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