After an absolutely cracking month of football, the World Cup Final is upon us. The tournament has been one of the best in history, providing spectacular goals, major upsets, and a ton of entertaining football. The latter stages have expectedly succumbed to a much more defensive style of play, but that doesn’t mean the final won’t be one for the ages, with some David vs. Goliath undertones. The world will tune in Sunday for what will hopefully be a final that can match the entire tournament so far. Here’s a preview of what’s to come when the teams kick off in Moscow:
Who: France vs. Croatia, Sunday, 8 AM PT (FOX)
Where: Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia
France: Didier Deschamps
Croatia: Zlatko Dalic
France: Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe (3)
Croatia: Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic (2)
How we got here
Les Bleus seemed to be on cruise control through the group stage, and though they topped Group C with seven points (thanks to wins against Australia and Peru and a draw against Denmark), they looked somewhat lifeless while doing so. That changed in an instant when the knockouts began as they played one of the games of the tournament in a 4-3 win over Argentina (which in truth they dominated, despite the final scoreline). They then cast aside an Edinson Cavani-less Uruguay side 2-0 in the quarterfinals before squeaking past Belgium 1-0 in what was a fantastic display of team defense. France have run the gauntlet from the ‘hard’ side of the bracket and certainly have earned their spot in the crown-jewel fixture.
Conversely, Croatia came out of the gates on absolute fire. In what was by many considered the toughest and most unpredictable group in the tournament, the Vatreni (Blazers) turned on the style, winning all three
France: Kylian Mbappe
The World Cup has been a coming-out party for Mbappe (at least for those who didn’t know about the 19-year-old phenomenon), and he has been a central piece of France’s success. His three goals have all been critical, with one spurring a win over Peru and the other two helping see off Argentina. Moreso, Mbappe been a spark plug on the wing and hasn’t shown any fear, running at any defender that stands in his way. The final will prove a big test for the teenager, but he has yet to run into a roadblock he’s been unable to overcome, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Expect him to be heavily involved both with the ball at his feet and running in behind a potentially tired Croatia backline. His speed is electric, and his ability to finish has rapidly improved of late, making him potentially the most dangerous player on the field. It’s a lot for the youngster to wear on his shoulders, but Mbappe could well be the difference come Sunday.
Croatia: Luka Modric
Probably the first in line at the moment for the Golden Ball (the tournament’s best player), Modric is the beating heart of the Croatia team and has controlled every game from the center midfield position. He has been tireless despite playing almost every minute, and he is one of the hottest players in the world after helping vault Real Madrid to their third straight Champions League title back in May. This tournament has allowed Modric to shine beyond what he does for his club, as he is the main man on the
France: N’golo Kante
Another diminutive midfielder who has been instrumental in his team’s run to the final is Kante. The Chelsea man touches every blade of grass on the field and provides cover for Paul Pogba to go forward and create. To really put into perspective what he does for a team, just look at his past couple of seasons. Kante won the Premier League with Leicester, then did the same with Chelsea the following season before taking France to the Euro 2016 final on home soil. Chelsea also picked up an FA Cup last year with, of course, Kante in the wheelhouse. It’s no coincidence that all this has happened with arguably the world’s best ball winner in the heart of the midfield, and his play against the trio of Croat midfielders will be critical to deciding the match (more on that to come in a moment).
Croatia: Danijel Subasic
Just about everyone in Croatia’s starting XI could be named here, but Subasic gets the nod for his stellar play between the pipes. Twice he has taken Croatia through on penalty kicks, making big saves in both shootouts, and he has come up big in regulation and extra time as well. Against Russia, he showed amazing mettle to stay on the pitch after being injured late. The 33-year-old plys his trade for Monaco and has been a big part of their success over the last few seasons, and he is now getting his chance to show that on the biggest of stages. A big game could mean even more accolades with a potential nod for the Golden Glove (given to the tournament’s best keeper). With France probably having the edge in natural talent, there’s a solid chance he will be under pressure, and his response could lift his country.
Key matchup to watch: The midfield battle
It is often said the game is won and lost in the midfield, but it’s probably never going to be more true than the final. Kante and Pogba (with Griezmann essentially playing as a number 10) is a scary proposition for any side, but Croatia have their own trio of Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, and Inter’s Marcelo Brozovic which can certainly compete. The battle for possession will largely take place there, but both teams’ ability in the center of the park means the attacks will likely have to be funneled down the wings out of respect. Expect all six centrally located players to lay it all on the line with hard tackles and
What this game means to each country
France: A shot at redemption
Clearly the bigger and more historically successful side here, France are looking to shake off their Euro 2016 failure. In that tournament, too, they came out of the tougher side of the bracket only to face an underdog and crumble at the worst moment. Their generation is still rising and will have further shots at trophies, but a second straight blown final could mean a big media backlash and the inevitable title as the biggest chokers in the football world currently, which is a moniker they desperately want to avoid for a multitude of reasons.
Croatia: A chance to win the biggest game in their nation’s history
Yes, the game is as big as it gets for France too, but they have taken home a World Cup trophy (on home soil too), so they have been here before. The 4 million people in Croatia have never seen their team play in a final and only made their first appearance (as their own nation) in a World Cup in 1998, when France won (and beat the Croatians in the semis). History aside, no one predicted Croatia would get this far, yet here they are, with a shot at footballing immortality with the weight of an entire nation on their backs. Underdogs, yes. Scared, absolutely not.
Advantage, Croatia. The upstart side has battled through immense pressure to get this far, and seeing off three straight teams in extra time is no easy feat. It has to be said that the resolve they have shown is second to none in the tournament; no matter what has been thrown at them, they have found a way to win. Better yet, Croatia trailed in all three of their knockout stage games, so they have proven that they are never out of a contest. They won’t be the most skilled team competing in the final, but they will bring a top-notch never-say-die attitude.
Who will win?
That being said, France have to be pretty big favorites here. They haven’t really been tested too seriously in the knockouts, but their defense looks immense as of late. Having an extra day of rest, combined with not having played any extra time games, could be a big bonus as they will certainly be the fresher of the two. In a tight contest as well, the French bench is undoubtedly deeper, and they personnel they can sub on are all game-changers. It won’t be a walk in the park, but with a more focused group after a disappointing end to the Euros, France should be able to get the job done this time around.