The most memorable moment in international football for both the finalists of tonight’s FIFA World Cup final came in 1998. It remains France’s only World Cup triumph, while the then newly created state of Croatia announced itself on the biggest stage with a third-placed finish.
France and Croatia had met in the semifinal 20 years ago, with the hosts coming up on top 2-1, eventually beating Brazil in the final. While France made the 2006 final, another World Cup has eluded them since then.
Meanwhile, Croatia have largely struggled at the World Cups since their 1998 breakthrough. They have either not qualified for the tournament or failed to qualify out of their group. Tonight, they’ll look to become one of the unlikeliest champions in FIFA World Cup history.
Despite the contrasting pedigrees, both France and Croatia have approached the tournament almost identically.
Both have altered their strategies keeping their oppositions in mind. Both have attacking flair up front, but find strength in compact midfields. Both have vulnerabilities in defence, but have immense figures as goalkeepers. Both have beaten Argentina en route to the final.
But a major difference between the two has been the way their contests – especially in the knockout stages – have panned out.
While France have beaten Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium in regular time, Croatia have gone into extra-time in each of their knockout matches, having had to beat Denmark and Russia on penalties. What that means is that France have relatively eased into the final, while Croatia have already faced – and overcome – tough tests.
Having battled those challenges could be crucial for the Croatian side’s belief, should they face a similar test against a French side that has proven to be tough to break down once in the lead.
But what those tough contests have also done is that Croatia have played 90 minutes – the duration of an entire football match – more than France, with another couple of penalty shootouts. Those combined can be physically and mentally exhausting.
Even so, World Cup finals are usually tight, cagey affairs where the past is rendered irrelevant. And while France remain the overwhelming favourites, the resilient Croatian side has what it takes to pull off one of the most remarkable triumphs in football – and indeed sporting – history.
Again, there are similarities in the shapeup and approach of the two finalists, which means the midfield is where the match would be won and lost.
France’s Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante have usually dominated this part of the field in all their contests, especially since Didier Deschamps has deployed the former in a more conservative role, resulting in a beefed up midfield designed to counter the attacking flair of the opposition.
Croatian skipper Luka Modric, arguably the player of the tournament so far, and Ivan Rakitic would be the ones directly facing off against Pogba and Kante. For France, the task might be simple: prevent Modric from pulling the strings and you stop Croatia from playing ball.
Hence, it would not be surprising if France approach the final exactly like they went into the semifinal against Belgium looking to hit Croatia on the counter. And there are few better forwards to execute this – or any – stratagem than Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, both of whom have three goals each in the tournament so far.
Olivier Giroud hasn’t exactly set the World Cup afire, but his role as the target man, allows Mbappe and Griezmann the freedom to maraud around the final third and link with the compact midfield to create openings – often on the break.
For Croatia, Mario Mandzukic is the major goal threat and he would be on the prowl to exploit the evident vulnerabilities in the French defence. Along with Mandzukic, Modric and Perisic too have a couple of goals each, and there’s a good chance that any Croatian goal might come from one of their midfielders making the forward run.
Hugo Lloris and Danjiel Subasic are two massive figures in goal, and have made huge saves to keep their sides in the tournament. However, where Subasic would have the edge over Lloris is that he has already contested – and won – two penalty shootouts, and should the final reach that stage it would be a first for the French skipper.
There’s more than a fair chance that the final would go all the way down to the wire. This is primarily because of the way the two sides would line up.
Croatia would know that giving an early goal to France would allow Deschamps’ team to sit back and just soak up the pressure as they did against Belgium. This is despite Croatia having conceded an early goal against England and Gareth Southgate’s side having deployed a similar strategy – for, there’s a considerable difference between the midfield prowess of France and England.
France, hence, have no reason to be expansive and would rely on the individual brilliance of a wide gamut of attacking talent on display to conjure a moment of magic.
That, from either side, is what might settle tonight’s final, with the eventual winners nicking a close encounter. Even so, the final has extra-time – at the very least – written all over it.