World Cup Final Preview: How Croatia can do the unthinkable
While France and Croatia might be the World Cup final no one expected, it sure feels like the most fitting.
From Germany getting bounced in the group stage by South Korea, to Russia defeating heavy favorite Spain in the knockout round, this World Cup has been full of drama and unbelievable moments. So it oddly makes sense that the final features the likes of Croatia and France.
France, a tournament favorite teeming with talent going to their third World Cup final; Croatia, an underdog that muscled their way into the Country’s first final appearance ever. The game has the potential to be both the last and largest moment of insanity from the 2018 tournament.
So without further ado, here’s what to watch for from both teams when they hit the pitch tomorrow.
The case for France:
France was one of the few teams favored to win the tournament well before it even began, and for good reason. They have the depth and talent in all areas of the field that make them a tough team to play against. That being said the second youngest team in the competition had a rather underwhelming start in the group stage. Sure, they won the group with seven points but they only managed to score three total goals against some of the weaker opponents in the tournament. However, like most of the great young teams that excel in these types of competitions, they’ve continued to improve exponentially as they play. They rolled through the knockout stage beating Argentina, Uruguay, and powerhouse Belgium en route to the final.
Their relentless offense has really taken off thanks to forwards Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé who each have three goals. Mbappé looks poised to win best young player of the tournament and if he has one more performance like his two-goal game against Argentina, he might just win the Golden Ball for the best overall player in the tournament.
In addition to their strong offense France’s defense is nothing to scoff at. Midfielder N’Golo Kanté has been near perfect all tournament and has the potential to disrupt Croatia’s star Luka Modrić in what should be an intriguing battle in the midfield. Throw in defenders Raphaël Varane, Samuel Umtiti, and one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Hugo Lloris and France should be able to create plenty of problems for the creative Croatian offense.
All of France’s pieces are clicking at the right time and if they play like they have in the last few games they could be hoisting their Country’s second World Cup trophy on Sunday.
The case for Croatia:
The 2018 World Cup has been all about defying expectations and no team has embodied this more than Croatia. Right out of the gate they proved that they were here to play. They dominated group favorite Argentina in their second game and later won the group with a perfect nine points. They opened the knockout stage with back-to-back penalty shootout wins against Denmark and host country Russia and then dramatically dashed England’s hopes in extra time in the semifinals. Needless to say, Croatia has been unphased by the pressure that comes with performing in the sport’s biggest stage.
Most of their success can be attributed to their veteran leadership, more specifically in their captain Modrić, who has been incredible all tournament. He’s scored two goals and has been dominate in the midfield along with fellow La Liga star Ivan Rakitić. The pair are poised to give France’s midfield a tough fight.
Croatia has won time of possession in all but one of their world cup games and have produced consistent offense from multiple players on the field. Although they lack true game changing forwards like France’s Griezmann and Mbappé, they still have plenty of players who can step up and score. The most notable of them are forward Ivan Perišić and winger Mario Mandžukić who each have a pair of goals.
Overall the experience that Croatia has, as well as their ability to maintain control of the ball could prove to be the difference as they look to pull off the unthinkable against a young French team.
While I think Croatia definitely has a chance to pull off something special I simply don’t think they will. The key to this game is going to be in the midfield where Modrić and Kanté are going to be going at eachother all night. If Modrić and Croatia can press France and keep them on their heels with smart offense and also close out and limit space on defense, they have a solid chance of making it a game. But France is simply too talented and too strong at every position to be outplayed by the underdog Croats. At this stage of the tournament there is also the factor of fatigue to consider. Croatia has played over 90 minutes more than France has due to their three knockout stage games going into extra time. Look for France to take home the cup tomorrow morning.
Column By Josh Stickrod
Where to watch: Fox or Online at FoxSportsGo
When to watch: Sunday, July 15 at 8 a.m. PT