MOSCOW — It is a World Cup final that few would have predicted at the start of Russia 2018, but France will face Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday with the chance to become world champions at stake for both sides.
Didier Deschamps, who captained France to World Cup glory in 1998, has seen his all-star team build momentum throughout the tournament, and they go into the final as strong favourites to win.
But Croatia have displayed resolve, perseverance and quality to overcome Denmark, Russia and England (all after extra time) to get to their first ever final, and led by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, they will believe they can take the World Cup back to the Balkans for the first time.
So which team has the edge going into Sunday’s final?
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France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has produced a few world-class saves — from Martin Caceres in the quarterfinal vs. Uruguay, and Toby Alderweireld against Belgium — to remind us all of his ability, but the Tottenham No. 1 went into the World Cup on the back of an unconvincing season for club and country.
Lloris can be unsettled when he has the ball at his feet, so Croatia will look to target this weakness and hope that their goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, can maintain his remarkable form in Russia.
Subasic has been a hero of two penalty shootouts and played in the semifinal win against England despite having injured his hamstring in the quarterfinal against Russia. The Monaco keeper will pose a determined barrier against the French, but Lloris has grown into this tournament, and he is the best keeper in the final.
Between them, France and Croatia have conceded just nine goals so far at this World Cup, and three of those shipped by the French came in the remarkable 4-3 win against Argentina in the round of 16.
Croatia have not kept a clean sheet during the knockout stages and, against England, were troubled by the pace and movement of Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, with Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida enduring a tough opening hour against Gareth Southgate’s team before nerves set in.
France, with the blistering pace of Kylian Mbappe, will exploit Croatia’s weaknesses at the back and trust their own back line, marshalled by Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane, to win their battles.
Defensively, France have a strong advantage.
Croatia are a match for any team in the world with their midfield triangle of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic, but they are up against a formidable unit in N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi.
This battle could boil down to Croatia’s streetwise experience against the energy, tenacity and power of the French.
Kante has been one of the stars of the tournament, while Pogba has quietly — unusually for him — gone about his business impressively.
Modric and Rakitic are world-class performers for club and country, though, so this will be the key tactical clash of the game.
France are blessed with some of the hottest attacking talent in the world right now and arguably possess the best options of any team in Russia.
Mbappe has already displayed his incredible ability at this World Cup, with Antoine Griezmann also impressing. The power and strength of Olivier Giroud has given France a crucial attacking dimension, while Deschamps can also call on Ousmane Dembele’s youthful talent and speed down the wing.
Croatia are at the other end of the scale, with battle-hardened veteran Mario Mandzukic leading the line. Wingers Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic are dangers — Perisic was outstanding in the semifinal win against England — and they will need to be on top of their game if Croatia are to have any hope.
Deschamps has all the pedigree you could wish for: a World Cup-winning captain in 1998 and a player who also won the Champions League twice, with Marseille and Juventus.
On the other side, Zlatko Dalic was a journeyman midfielder who never represented his country and a man who only took charge of Croatia, following spells coaching in Albania, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, last October.
Dalic has allowed his Croatia team to play to its strengths, however, and given senior figures such as Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic a voice on and off the pitch.
He has hugely overperformed to get Croatia to the final, so all the pressure on Sunday will be on Deschamps, whose last final saw France lose to Portugal in Paris at Euro 2016.
There are two big question marks hanging over this game: how tired are Croatia and can France hold their nerve to win the World Cup?
Croatia have played extra time three times to get to the final, and their senior players looked to be out of steam during the semifinal win against England. Somehow they dredged up incredible reserves of energy to win the game, but how punishing will those extra periods prove?
As for France, they should win comfortably due to their extra freshness and depth, but they failed to deliver on home turf in the Euro 2016 final, so will they choke again?
France 3-1 Croatia