moscow — Football’s biggest match is upon us, France and Croatia doing battle in the World Cup final tomorrow as Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium becomes the sport’s most coveted colosseum.
After 62 matches, only two competitors remain – having swashbuckled their way to the summit, dispatching their rivals one by one to earn their chance to challenge for the ultimate prize.
The French have risen amid a wave of scarcely-believable giant killings, justifying the pre-tournament hype to dominate a tricky group featuring the Socceroos before leaving Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium in their wake to forge a stunning path to this final.
Now the only thing standing in their way of a second World Cup triumph (after lifting the trophy in 1998) is a Croatian outfit who have beaten the odds, and a string of trying tests to emerge with the greatest result in their history.
A flawless group stage – headlined by a 3-0 demolition of Lionel Messi’s Argentina – was followed by back-to-back extra-time victories over Denmark, Russia and, most recently England, and they’re now in unchartered territory.
Since unifying as a modern nation in 1991, the small Balkan nation – with a meagre population of just 4,1 million – have represented five times at football’s top tournament. On debut in 1998, their “golden generation” led by golden boot winner Davor Suker, achieved at their greatest outcome until now, reaching the final four before having their dream ended by … France.
Vengeance is on offer in this decider, but coach Zlatko Dalic insists revenge isn’t the motivator for his team.
“In 1998, I was in France for the first three games as a supporter. Everyone in Croatia remembers that game when Lilian Thuram scored and we lost 2-1. This has been the topic of discussion for the past 20 years,” Dalic said after the semi-final win.
“I remember when we celebrated Suker’s goal, but as soon as we sat back down it was level.
“Both teams have shown their qualities, we do not seek revenge, this is football, this is sport, but what we have to do is focus on preparing to play our best game of the tournament in the final.”
They’ll need to be at their best to defeat this star-studded French side.
In a tournament of drama, they’ve proven immune to the sensational. Under Didier Deschamps, the French appear to have found a balance – with quality across the park and a regimented system driving their run to the final.
In attack, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann have been sublime, while midfield pairing N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba have earned wide ranging plaudits in the centre of the park. At the back, skipper and keeper Hugo Lloris has been excellent while centre-back pairing Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane have complemented their defensive solidity with key goals for their country.
Full backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have been revelations despite question marks over their experience and quality leading into this tournament. It’s truly been a team performance and one which has led to clear favouritism in this final. But Croatia have shown they’re not to be underestimated.
In all three of their knockout matches they’ve conceded first, and rallied to emerge victorious. Many suggested exhaustion would prove their downfall in the semi-final against England, but they seemed to only get stronger as the minutes ticked by.
Three consecutive added time knockout wins are a far from perfect lead-in, but with their backs to the wall, this Croatian side have risen time and time again.
In Luka Modric, they’ve got a truly world class midfielder – possibly the world’s best at controlling a match from the centre. He’s a superhuman athlete, and has been the backbone of this surprise run — even the likes of Pogba and Kante could struggle to blunt his influence. The Croatian talisman has been tipped as a frontrunner to take out the golden ball for the best player at this tournament, although Mbappe shapes as his biggest threat – this match could prove decisive in the race for the prestigious gong.
Alongside Modric in midfield is Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, a highly-rated lieutenant who in his own right is worthy of attention – not to mention the big game experience he brings into this game.
Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic come from Serie A giants Inter Milan and Juventus respectively, and loom as dangerous attacking outlets after masterminding the goals that sent a favoured Three Lions side packing.
Big game experience should prove crucial on a stage like this, and Croatia boast three combatants who played key roles in the club football’s biggest clash this past season as Real Madrid bested Liverpool in the Champions League final.
Modric, Mateo Kovacic and centre-back Dejan Lovren, who partners Domagoj Vida in the heart of defence, all took part in that match. While France’s Varane was their only representative in Kiev.
It shapes as a thrilling final, with many – including Dalic − suggesting the best two teams are contesting for the prize.
For France, this clash brings a chance for redemption, two years after losing their most recent major final to Portugal at Euro 2016.
“I was there two years ago with my staff,” Deschamps said. “It was so painful we really want to taste the victory tonight. It’s not nothing to win the semi-final of the World Cup after losing the final of the Euro. It’s sport, we have this privilege to give happiness to the French people and the public.”
Should his men triumph, he would become just the third in history (after Brazilian Mario Zagallo and German Franz Beckenbauer) to win football’s most prestigious competition as both a player and a manager.
Either way, we’re about to see a worthy winner crowned kings of the sport in a major shift of a well-established world order.