The most eagerly-awaited and important day of any World Cup football tournament is the day of the final which is in other words, the icing on the cake of the one-month party where the champion is crowned, and though millions are still reeling from the disappointing ousting of their respective nations at Russia 2018, the universal expectations for today’s ‘grand finale’ between France and Croatia are very high and perhaps equally divided.
From the opening day of the 21st edition of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, last month, fans and followers of the ‘Beautiful Game’ have been treated to a most unthinkable, if not unmatchable, tournament, loaded with surprising results and upsets.
Now that it has come down to the last two standing nations to determine the final destination, the question on the minds of many is, can Croatia become the ninth country to lift football’s most coveted prize?
On their journey to reach their first final in a 20-year history, the Croats had to overcome all of their opponents in extra time in the knockout stage, with the first two decided on penalty kicks after they had comfortably won all three group matches.
On the contrary, France had less difficulty in disposing of their opponents in the knockout stage, ending all games in regulation time, following their two wins and only goal-less draw of the tournament against Denmark in their group. Grit and determination, complemented by attacking flair are the strengths of Croatia at only their fifth finals’ appearance, while the French in their 15th finals have been well organized in defence and disciplined tactically. The Luka Modric-led Croatia unit have defied all odds and garnered much global support in addition to their over four million population along the way, and today many are hoping that the lowest ranked side to contest a World Cup final can upstage a pre-tournament favorite.
The Croatians feel confident that they can continue to rewrite history with their rich vein of form and bring a shocking climax to Russia 2018. They also want to thrive off of disappointing memories of their debut World Cup appearance in 1998 when Les Bleus ended their fairy-tale run in the semi-finals. Now they are hungry for revenge 20 years later and at a most crucial time with the Cup on line.
The present coach for France, Didier Deschamps, was the captain of the 1998 World Cup winning side and for the final chapter of Russia 2018 he is as confident as his opponents, setting the stage for what can be an entertaining and memorable final.
Midfield battle in today’s showdown will be pivotal to the final outcome and here is where the creative Modric and Ivan Rakatic, both in their early 30s, will have their work curtailed by France’s twin-power in the multi-talented Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, arguably the best defensive midfielder at this year’s World Cup. The two wide midfielders, Ante Rebic on the right and on the left, Ivan Perisic, fitness pending, will also find space a little tight on the flanks against full-backs, Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez while marksman Mario Mandzukic will be up against the French twin-tower in Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti as well as the last line of defence, captain Hugo Lloris. The Les Bleus’ organization in defence has been almost impeccable and has also bolstered the attack with quality goals from Pavard, Varane and Umtiti.
France’s three-man attacking midfield of Blaise Matuidi on the left, Antoine Griezeman in the centre and teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe on the right, with lone attacker Oliver Giroud would be more than a handful for Croatia’s backline led by the self-acclaimed best defender in the world, Dejan Lovren. Left back Ivan Strinic, in particular, will have be at his best to stop the explosiveness of Mbappe while right back Sime Vrsaljko will have to temper his tendency to join the attack as Matuidi will be ready for the counter-attack. For this the Croats have deployed Marcelo Brozovic just in front the back-four to add solidity to Danijel Subasic’s citadel.
Coach Zlakto Dalic is only nine months in the job and how he has been able to transform this side into match-readiness, in the face of adversary and football-related political division at home, seems like a miracle to all, including the Coach. Today, they confront their first real challenge, a super-talented team built by a champion who is on the verge of joining Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as the only players to have won football’s greatest honor as both player and coach.
Deschamps, like the majority of the team, still feels the hurt and pain suffered at home, two years ago, when they lost the European Cup final to Portugal and this is the perfect time to heal the old wound that was inflicted on over 66 million French people. They have all learnt that while individual brilliance can be a decisive factor, embracing and playing to the team concept is of greater importance and that they have stuck to all competition to reap the rich rewards.
The self-confidence and will to triumph has been, throughout the tournament, the backbone of the gifted Croats who are equally determined to bring to a successful end, one of the most unlikely runs in World Cup history. There is widespread belief, a lot of them superstitious, that the most fitting end to this, the most incredible World Cup, is for a new champion to be crowned, thus the 13th nation to appear in a championship final will prevail. I honestly, beg to differ as the French will take care of business in the required 90 minutes and save the mentally tough Croatians the agony of an unprecedented fourth consecutive 120-minute game.
No other two Nations deserve to be contesting the championship of Russia 2018 and I will not be disappointed, ‘for the good of the Game’, if the 27 year-old Independent state of Croatia are crowned champions.
My prediction, however, is that France will justly win their second title by a 2-0 margin and carry off the top prize money of $38M US.
Allez Francais (Let’s go France).