Goats, pigs and even crows have had their say on which country becomes FIFA World Cup champions on July 15, 2018 – and it is France’s Les Bleus against first-timers, the Vatreni of Croatia that will contest it.
I start with my prediction – France to edge Croatia. This is not based on ‘bad-belle’ – because Croatia beat Nigeria in their opening game, and also beat the hosts, Russia, but for the major reason that France seems to have more solutions to the challenges this Croatia team will pose on Sunday.
Croatia has shown great resolve and ability to reconfigure when they have hit a bad patch at Russia 2018 but France have gotten to the final playing in gear two – with stars like Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann shining fleetingly.
The last time they met was a semifinal at France ’98 and Lilian Thuram rescued Les Bleus with his two goals after Davor Suker had given the then first timers the lead.
On Sunday, the battle will be for football’s greatest prize and I can assure everyone, this will be closely fought.
In six matches, France have conceded four goals – in two of their six matches in Russia – three in that second round match against Argentina and have scored 10. Croatia have conceded in all three knockout matches – and dragged into extra time for good measure in all three. Zlatko Dalic’s men scored 12 goals whilst conceding five and most tellingly, they have conceded at least one goal in their last four matches.
Manchester United fans are surely surprised at the frugality and dependability of Pogba, even though he still hits those Hollywood passes while the central defenders – Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti have been huge for Didier Deschamps. Both have also scored very important goals in getting to the final.
Varane is a reigning Champions League winner with Real Madrid while Umtiti just won La Liga with Barcelona.
As we have always known, Croatia posses a plethora of midfield technicians.
From Luka Modric to Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Rakitic and the perennial sub in Mateo Kovacic, the Vatreni possess master keys that can they can use to unlock any defence even though they lack a true marksman.
Stats in the six matches leading to the final.
While Croatia have had their least possession in Russia 2018 in the second group match against Argentina; France have conceded possession to Peru, Argentina, and Belgium. In their 1-0 semifinal win over Belgium, Didier Deschamps’ side had just 36 per cent of the ball.
What it means is that Les Bleus do not need the ball to win matches – which could be a prototype of the kind of mindset Deschamp could set up for the Luzhniki on Sunday.
The only stats in which France have bested Croatia is in pass success rate and the tackles, on account of N’Golo Kante playing every minute of all six matches and making 14 successful tackles.
Head to head
29/03/11 FRI France 0 – 0 Croatia
17/06/04 EUC Croatia 2 – 2 France
27/05/00 FRI Croatia 0 – 2 France
13/11/99 FRI France 3 – 0 Croatia
08/07/98 WOC France 2 – 1 Croatia
Will it be decided by a set piece?
This World Cup has seen 163 goals scored in 63 matches but out of the 163 goals, 68 goals have been scored from set pieces. France have conceded four times but none directly from a set piece.
Argentina’s second goal came from concerted pressure after a set piece, while the penalty conceded by Umtiti against Australia was as a result of a handball on a free kick.
Croatia have conceded five – two direct from free kicks – the header by Manuel Fernandez for Russia’s equaliser in the quarterfinal and against England from a direct free kick taken by Kieran Trippier.
What it will surely be is a tense affair. Having gotten this far, many of the players will play not to lose but in this tournament, that has never gotten the right result. The team that will be confident in their regime and tactics, the team that settles the fastest, will surely win this one.