FRANCE v Croatia is a surprising final but also a good reflection of this World Cup.
After all it has been a tournament full of surprises in which we have seen that a different type of football is required to succeed, one based on team work and sticking to the basic principles over a reliance on individual players and moments. France and Croatia have best represented that shift; neither has sparkled but they have been consistent and hard-working and hence they will do battle on Sunday for the ultimate prize.
France are rightly favourites to win what would be their second world title. They are the complete team – solid at the back, well-balanced in midfield and able to play with real flair in attack. But they have not done that often during this tournament due to the manager’s low-risk policy and seeming desire to do no more than what is required to win the game in front of him.
Watching Didier Deschamps’ side, I have consistently been left with the feeling that there is another gear they can go to and this is also what makes them dangerous opponents – you cannot switch off against them for a second.
Croatia will, therefore, need to be patient and not leave themselves as exposed at the back as they did during the first half of their semi-final against England. They were incredibly open during that period and, in truth, were lucky not to be more than 1-0 down. However, Croatia also showed during the second half that they are a remarkably mature and resilient team and one that, unlike France, play to their absolute limit. They will push Deschamps’ men all the way.
Croatia’s aim will be to turn the final into a physical battle as this is the type of game their players like, no one more so than Mario Mandzukic. He is constantly moving, constantly making life difficult for the defenders he comes up against and besides being prepared to take a challenge will give back as good as he gets. He is fearless.
Ante Rebic is similar. He is another attacking player who likes a physical battle. He and Mandzukic lead from the front, setting the tone for the entire team and, as Mandzukic showed against England, providing a killer touch at key moments.
There is no doubt, however, who Croatia’s best player is. Luka Modric has been excellent during the tournament and particularly in the second half against England when, alongside Ivan Rakitic, he ran the game.
Much like Andrés Iniesta and Xavi he makes up for his lack of size and stature by getting his body between the ball and his opponent in the correct fashion. It may not look like much but it makes a huge difference.
Someone else who is very good at that is N’Golo Kanté. Like Modric he is a deceptively strong midfielder and, for me, has been France’s best player at the World Cup. His sense of positioning and anticipation is consistently excellent as well as crucial to giving Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann the platform from which to attack; they know they can pour forward as they have an ultra reliable player behind them.
Given he was a similar player himself, I’m sure Deschamps appreciates what Kanté gives France and he will be vital in what is sure to be an important midfield battle in Moscow. Whichever team wins that is likely to win the match.
For many people this has been a great World Cup. I disagree with the assessment. It has been unpredictable, interesting and fun but, overall, the quality has been lacking, certainly to the level provided by the Champions League. It has been a tournament more about great teamwork than great teams, hence the progress of the two teams that have reached the final as well as, of course, England.
Gareth Southgate and his side deserve great credit for getting to the semi-finals and, more importantly, reconnecting the country with the national team. So, if you are English, cherish that as you reflect on this World Cup.
I for one have enjoyed it and look forward to the final. It should be fascinating.
Ed Note. So photographers be on high alert should Croatia win on Sunday, after what happened to a Mexican lensman who found himself in the midst of celebrations after Juventus striker Mandzukic’s extra time goal winner . You’ve been warned…