World Cup Final Preview: France vs Croatia

Sunday's World Cup Final features a matchup few could've predicted before the tournament, but this battle between a soccer powerhouse and a relative outsider might just make for an instant classic.

A month ago, 32 national teams arrived in Russia, all keen to embark on an odyssey each hoped would end in triumph under the lights of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

62 matches and a surplus of drama later, only two sides remain.

One is a former world and European champion, a pre-tournament favorite and a blue-blood of the game in every sense.

The other is a debutante to world football’s greatest showpiece, an outsider that’s shown grit, passion and nerves of steel to make it this far.

After (mostly) strong showings throughout this tournament, both France and Croatia would be worthy title winners, though of course, only one will be left to raise the FIFA World Cup trophy on Sunday night.

Who will that side ultimately be? Let's put the two finalists in focus, starting with the favorites.

France: Young, Hungry, Balanced

Given the talent, depth and pedigree of this version of Les Bleus, their progression to the final comes as no shock, even if a handful of their performances in this competition have left something to be desired.

Yet, even while underwhelming at times, at no point in the tournament -- not even when they trailed 2-1 to Argentina in their opening knockout stage match -- have Didier Deschamps’ collection of international superstars looked seriously threatened.

After a minor personnel re-think following an uneven victory in their opener against Australia, France have discovered their most effective identity as a pragmatic unit that’s disciplined, hard-working and devastating in transition. And given the background of their manager -- a former tenacious, ball-winning midfielder in his own right -- perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

They’ve not blown away the opposition -- of their five victories this World Cup, all but one has come by a single goal -- but they’ve been largely in control in these tight contests, locking the door at the back in their modified 4-3-3, and looking to break through the electric Kylian Mbappe and tireless N’golo Kante when given the opportunities.

The emergence of PSG’s Mbappe -- who, at 19, is the second-youngest player in this tournament – and the breakouts of 22-year-old fullbacks Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard are the obvious differences between this French side and the one that fell one win short of a title on home soil at Euro 2016.

That defeat to Portugal at the Stade de France has only fueled the fire to add a second star to the French Football Federation crest 20 years after the first was earned, a dream that's now just 90 minutes away from becoming a reality.

Croatia: A Touch of Destiny

Ironically, France's initial world championship came at the expense of the team they face on Sunday.

In their first World Cup as an independent nation, Croatia’s first golden generation barnstormed their way to the semifinals of France ’98, and even took a second-half lead against the favored hosts in Paris, only to see two unanswered goals from Lilian Thuram end their dreams of bringing a title back to Zagreb.

Since that magical run to the semis, however, World Cup highlights for the Vatreni had been few and far between, as the side exited after the group stage in 2002, 2006 and 2014, and failed to qualify altogether for the 32-team field in South Africa in 2010.

More recently, the team slumped to a disappointing loss in the Round of 16 at the most recent Euros and had a myriad of struggles in qualifying for Russia 2018, ultimately resulting in the sacking of then-manager Ante Cacic two days before their final UEFA group match, a must-win road tilt against Ukraine.

But just when it looked like their dreams of simply reaching this World Cup were all but over, the phoenix-like rise for this Croatian side began.

51-year-old Zlatko Dalic was installed as Cacic’s replacement and promptly led his new charges to a decisive 2-0 victory in Kiev just hours after taking the job. That win put Croatia into a World Cup qualification playoff against Greece -- who they promptly thumped 4-1 a month later to book their ticket to Russia – and they’ve not looked back since.

After dominating their opening round matches by an aggregate score of 7-1 against Nigeria, Argentina and Iceland -- a section some considered the toughest in the tournament -- the Balkan side has been pushed to the limit in each knockout round, but has always found a way to move on in the end, either via penalty shootout or in the second half of extra time.

Different heroes have arisen at each turn -- Danijel Subasic in the Round of 16, Domagoj Vida in the quarterfinals, Ivan Perisic and Mario Madzukic in the semis -- with the constant, ever-present magic and motor of Luka Modric directing and dictating every step of the way.

To say the 29-year-old Real Madrid star is the heartbeat of this team is no hot take, but the fact that Modric has played the role of main creative force while covering more distance than any other player this tournament -- a full 63 kilometers in 6 matches -- speaks volumes.

The Matchup: Strength vs. Strength

The fact that Croatia’s captain and his teammates have literally run an ultramarathon this month is one of the main talking points entering Sunday’s final.

Thanks to three straight extra-time thrillers, Zlatko Dalic’s side has played a full 90 minutes more than Les Bleus and, thanks to FIFA scheduling the semifinals on different days, they also have 24 hours less to recover.

With that said, experts expected the physical and emotional grind of back-to-back shootout victories to hamper Croatia in Wednesday’s semi against a fresher England side, but it was the Three Lions who faded in the second half, while the Vatreni didn’t feel the need to make a sub until extra time.

At this point, if the fatigue hasn’t affected this team yet, is it likely to kick in during an adrenaline-filled World Cup Final?

In terms of context, outside of the aforementioned semifinal class in France ‘98, there isn’t much recent history between these two sides, as they’ve not faced each other since 2011. And that was a virtually meaningless friendly in Paris that finished 0-0.

But while it’s been 14 years since their last competitive meeting, there’s no shortage of familiarity between the players involved, as of the 22 men expected to start Sunday, 9 will have teammates wearing the opposition’s jersey.

In terms of attack, neither side is overly reliant on one player to score. Over half of France’s goals this tournament have come from Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, who share the team scoring lead with three tallies apiece, while a whopping nine different players have found the back of the net for Croatia.

If goals arrive -- and given recent finals history, there are no guarantees they will -- there’s almost a one-in-three chance they’ll come from a dead ball, as in this “World Cup of Set Pieces”, 48 of the 161 goals scored (29.8%) have come from the penalty spot, a corner or free kick.

While Croatia have bucked that set-piece trend -- 10 of their 12 goals this tournament have come from open play -- France have been as reliant on set plays as anyone, with 40% of their tallies coming from those situations. Given that the Balkan nation has committed nearly 17 fouls per match, the second-most of any team in Russia, odds are good that Les Bleus will get chances to add to their set-piece goal haul.

Each side has an in-form goalkeeper, and each have been solid defensively, with both allowing less than a goal per match this World Cup. There’s dynamism in spades in midfield, and while France’s front three of Griezmann, Mbappe and the hard-toiling Olivier Giround are outstanding, Mandzukic, Ante Rebic and Andrej Kramaric have all scored this tournament and aren’t to be underestimated.

The Prediction: A Memorable Final

In the end, it’s a difficult match to call. While our projections give France a 75% chance to finish as champions Sunday, it's not a stretch to say this World Cup has seldom gone according to plan.

Much like the duration of Russia 2018, this final matchup might’ve taken a bit to come to terms with. It’s not the battle of titans that we’ve been accustomed to, but that doesn’t make it any less of spectacle, nor does it lessen its importance.

Should France earn the crown, it could be the start of a dynasty and the first of many titles for the second-youngest team in the competition.

If Croatia pull off the upset, they’d become just the ninth world champion in history, the first from Eastern Europe and the second-smallest in terms of population size, an example to every non-traditional power that nothing is impossible.

Either way, one team will make history in Moscow Sunday, and the world will be watching.