Croatia battles France for glory at World Cup grand finale
Croatia is one of those teams nobody tipped to reach the latter stages of this competition, but the Luka Modric-inspired Eastern Europeans have displayed a scintillating brand of football, which has survived two extra times and shoot outs to bring them to the edge of success.
France was one of the teams tipped for the crown from inception, but they were not among the most favoured with holders, Germany, Brazil and Spain the most picked by most of the pundits as the likely winners.
Today, all the trio are back home watching on television as France and Croatia battle for the title at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow.
This is the second meeting of the two finalists in the business end of the World Cup with France beating Croatia 2-1 in the semi-final of the 1998 edition, which they hosted.
But in this final coming after 62 matches filled with upsets and unbelievable capitulation by some giants, France and Croatia enter the fray on equal footing having shown they ability to survive even in difficult situations.
Croatia, which featured in Nigeria’s Group D, showed signs of their intentions from the first game against the Super Eagles, which they won 2-0 in Kaliningrad, beat Argentina 3-0 before seeing off Iceland 2-1 before back to back extra time defeats of Denmark and Russia before coming from behind to beat England 2-1 in the semi-final.
Now, history beckons on a country, which highest international hour was the bronze medal in 1998.
France was one of the pre-tournament favourites, but not many pundits gave them the chance of taking the title owing to their usual habit of capitulating when much is expected of them.
But they defied the giant killing efforts of the lesser teams to dominate and shove aside Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium on their way to this final.
Now, they have a chance to win their second title by beating Croatia.
Croatia, which was unified as a nation in 1991, is a small country of about 4.1 million people, which has always punched above its weight in football and produced some of the most renowned players in recent time.
These include 1998 golden boot winner, Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki, Zvonomir Boban, Alen Boksic, Slaven Bilic, Goran Vlaovic, Aliosa Asanovic, Dario Simic, Niko Kovac and Igor Stimac, among other members of their first golden generation.
Now, this generation is out to make its own records, but revenge for the defeat 20 years ago is far from the agenda.
Croatia coach, Zlatko Dalic reminisces on the events of 1998 and says the march to the semi-finals has dominated discussions on the country’s football for the past 20 years.
“In 1998, I was in France for the first three games as a supporter. Everyone in Croatia remembers that game when Thuram scored and we lost 2-1.
This has been the topic of discussion for the past 20 years. 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.”
Today’s task would perhaps be the toughest the Croats have faced so far as they are meeting a star-studded French team that have conquered the butterflies that always made them falter in crucial moments.
They appear to have found a way to adjust to every challenge under Didier Deschamps, no matter the quality of opposition.
They beat all their opponents away from the group stage to the quarterfinal and adjusted to the quality challenge posed by Belgium in the semi-finals to grind out a 1-0 win.
The team is loaded in attack with the sublime Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, who although has not scored in the tournament yet, but has been creating space and chances for his team mates to finish.
In the midfield, Ngolo Kante, Paul Pogba and the hardworking Blaise Matuidi have proved a great engine that propels the attack and at the same time help the backline of Samuel Umtiti, Raphael Varane, Lucas Fernandez and Benjamin Pavard.
Often criticised for losing concentration at critical moments, goalkeeper and Skipper Hugo Lloris has been so fantastic here that he has been tipped as the possible goalkeeper of the tournament.
These are the obstacles before Croatia, but the French would surely regret it if they underestimated the Balkans.
Many expected Croatia to crumble against England after going through two 120 minutes and the anxiety filled two penalties shoot outs, but they rose from 0-1 down to win 2-1 with the winning goal coming just before the final from Mario Madzukic. They even finished the stronger of the two teams.
Skipper Luka Modric is a candidate for the player of the tournament and the Ballon d’Or. He is a classy midfielder, who has risen above different kinds of opposition to control their matches.
He is supported in arguably the best midfield of the tournament by Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, with Mandzukic and Ivan Perisc foraging for goals upfront.
Liverpool’s centre, Dejan Lovren has proved his critics wrong by forming a formidable partnership with Domagoj Vida in the heart of Croatia’s defence.
France’s Coach Deschamps sees this game as an opportunity to redeem the team after the 2016 debacle at the final of European Championship in Paris.
The final game against Portugal was a match most pundits expected France to win easily, especially when Cristiano Ronaldo was taken off injured in the early part of the tie.
But Deschamps men surprisingly lost the title to the Portuguese side.