We have arrived at the final destination - Moscow, home of the World Cup Final, pitting two teams in France and Croatia who both deserve to be in this position. This past month of soccer madness has flown by with heart-stopping turns at every point. It's been a thrilling tournament and one of the best we have seen so far this century. Plenty of drama, stoppage time goals, underdog stories like home nation Russia and the resurgence of England, and the powers like Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany all bowing out before the semi-finals. Now the world holds its breath in anticipation of who lifts the trophy in 2018.
Let’s not beat around the bush here; Croatia is the underdog. When the knockout brackets were first revealed, a Croatian run to the final was something many thought might happen but nobody predicted it in the way that it did. After two back to back penalty shootout wins, Croatia needed extra time again in their semi-final matchup against England, a team with tired legs but the deserved favorites. It usually doesn’t bode well when a team who has played 240 minutes in the past two games has to play catch up, but after England took the early advantage, Croatia slowly but steadily began to inch back into the game with Ivan Perisic's second-half equalizer. England’s back three was solid for much of the tournament but they were prone to mental lapses. While it certainly looked poor on Gareth Southgate’s side to lose focus like that, credit to Croatia for pouncing on them. It sort of felt like the second leg of Juventus vs. Spurs where Tottenham had two defensive lapses and the Italian side punished them. All it took was Kyle Walker to not check who was behind him when trying to defend a cross.
From there the tide shifted as England looked mystified and Croatia was dominating in the midfield, a strategy which always bodes well for them. In extra time again you wondered how Croatia’s legs would feel but they kept pushing on when Mario Mandzukic found the back of the net in the 109th minute for the winner. England's back line lapsed yet again as John Stones didn’t react quick enough to a bouncing ball in the box. It was a bizarre play as everyone on the pitch seemed to stop and watch the ball bounce towards Pickford; everyone except for Mandzukic. It was a nervy final 11 minutes as Croatia hung on to advance to their first World Cup final.
France faced a much tougher opponent in Belgium, but like their final opponents, they did much of the same thing they had done throughout the tournament: Grab a goal and hold steady.
France hasn’t looked too flashy in this tournament and outside of the Argentina game, their offense has looked lackluster. But it doesn’t matter to Didier Deschamps men. They just keep getting the job done and have gotten the results necessary to advance. They did the same thing against Belgium. France let Belgium dictate a lot of the possession this game and pick them off on the counter, a strategy Belgium used against Brazil, but it was a lone goal off a set piece from Barcelona center-back Samuel Umtiti that sent them through.
The game turned from there as France hunkered down and absorbed all the Belgian pressure. Belgium had a lot of chances on goal but couldn’t seem to beat Hugo Lloris and the French defense. To France’s credit, it was a tough backline to beat as Umtiti and Raphael Varane held down Romelu Lukaku and N’Golo Kante did a good job breaking up key passes while neutralizing the dangerous Kevin De Bruyne. It wasn’t the most pretty win or the most aesthetically pleasing win but once again, it’s just about getting the job done. Now France finds themselves one win away from winning a major tournament and can finally exercise the demons that haunted them after Euro 2016.
It’s a similar situation with France face as - like Portugal in 2016 - they face an inferior opponent in a final but they should be ready for this one. Losing at home in a European final doesn’t just wash away easily and it shouldn’t. There is a lot of those guys playing now who were there in Paris that day, watching Portugal go crazy as they snatched a cup winning goal without their best player in Cristiano Ronaldo on the pitch. One has to be wary about France playing inferior opponents but they should be solid.
The key in this matchup will be the midfield. It’s Modric and Rakitic versus the likely trio of Pogba, Matuidi, and Kante. Simply put, whoever controls the middle wins, but this one is much more crucial for Croatia, especially since their wings will have to defend a lot more with Mbappe and Griezmann able to leak out for counters. Strinic can’t be left alone against Mbappe as we saw what happens when you give the wonderkid any sorts of space. This will force Perisic to track back and at least account for Mbappe presence, so a lot of the offense will come through the middle of the park with the Croatian duo springing passes to unlock the French defense. France has three high motor players of their own with two of them having enough offensive quality to scare Croatia’s backline. If Matuidi and Pogba are able to get up in attack with Giroud being the holdup man and occupying the center-backs, Croatia could be in for a very long night.
Croatia will have to play a lot of defense while somehow making sure that they have enough time to get Rakitic and Modric going. This opens up Mario Mandzukic as a key man for Croatia as he alone will probably be up in attack unless Andrej Kramaric starts as a CAM with the duo in a double pivot behind him. But you could see Rakitic and Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic in a pivot with Modric up top. There is a lot of shifting which could go on in the Croatian midfield as manager Zlatko Dalic has a lot of options.
Croatia has been fun and like France, they haven’t been flashy but they are effective. This team won’t quit and I see them coming back in this one to equalize some time in the game. But then France is going to get a winner in the second half and hold on. It will be a World Cup to remember for Les Blues.