Preview: France v. Croatia

Coming into this World Cup, Croatia appeared to have one of the trickiest groups.  They announced their presence with a comfortable 2-0 win over Nigeria before impressing the world with a 3-0 hammering of Argentina.  By squeaking by Iceland 2-1, they emerged from the group stage as one of just three teams to take all nine points.  Doubts emerged in the knockout stages when they needed penalties to see off Denmark and Russia.  Their 2-1 thriller over England in extra time, though, reminded the world just how rich in talent the team is.

France, by contrast, was one of the favorites at the outset.  In the group stage, they managed a pair of unremarkable one goal wins over Australia and Peru before drawing Denmark.  Many were wondering if they would play up to their abilities.  In the knockout stages, they were effective but not overwhelming, beating Argentina 4-3 and Uruguay 2-0.  Perhaps their best performance of the tournament was a 1-0 victory over Belgium on Tuesday.

France enjoy several advantages coming into the final.  They are the more complete team by far.  France’s bench has more than double the transfer value of Croatia’s starting XI.  The underdogs are reliant upon a few stars, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandžukić in particular, though they have made the players around them better throughout the tournament.  France has only stars.  France also comes into the final with an extra day of rest.  Croatia certainly could have used that after going 120 minutes in all three of their knockout stage matches.

While France will seek to play an attacking game, they are playing what may be the most disciplined defense in the world.  Dejan Lovren has been the bane of many attackers in this tournament, while Domagoj Vida’s prowess is a big part of why the Croats are in the final.  The five man midfield defends from the front back, and nobody is above coming back to help when needed.

Kylian Mbappé and Paul Pogba present serious threats and could well hook up for a decisive goal if France is to  break through.  Both players have been outstanding and show that the future of French football is bright.  Antoine Griezmann has played deeper than he usually does at Atletico Madrid, but he is always a goal threat.

Prediction

With so many factors favoring France, it’s difficult to pick against them.  In this case, though, it is necessary.  France has an immensely talented team, but it is rare for the pressure in a World Cup final to be so heavily on the shoulders of just one team.  While the French have gotten the job done, they have not been at their best.  Croatia, however, has played up to their full potential, at least in parts of this tournament.  Those parts include their stunning comeback in the semifinal.  It will take injury time, but the little country that could breaks through and ends the dominance of traditional powers.  Croatia 2 France 1 A.E.T.

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