France will face off against first-time finalists Croatia in the showpiece event of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.

32 teams. One month of exhilarating footballing action, filled with shocks and surprises in plenty. And it all boils down to this. France and Croatia stand in each other’s way as either team dream of lifting the FIFA World Cup 2018.

France, having already been crowned world champions twenty years ago, know how the taste of glory feels. In fact, the French side that triumphed in 1998 was captained by current manager Didier Deschamps, who stands to achieve a unique feat of winning the esteemed trophy both as a player and manager.

The French haven’t been at their free-flowing best in the World Cup, but have been a resilient force that knows how to win games. Having put in a solid display against Belgium in the semifinal, on their way to a 1-0 victory, Les Bleus will be hoping to carry on from where they left off and avoid a fate similar to what they had to face in the European Championships two years ago.

On the other hand, Croatia will go into their first ever final of the World Cup. Their best performance in football’s premier competition came, coincidentally, in 1998, when they made it all the way to the semifinal, only to be beaten 2-1 by France.

Zlatko Dalic’s men have been one of the best teams in Russia so far, with their determination and mental character standing out throughout the knockout stages, after having breezed through the group phase. Having edged out England 2-1 in the semifinal after 120 minutes of action, Croatia’s golden generation, led by captain Luka Modric, will be hoping to make history on Sunday.

Team News and Tactics

France

Full-back Djibril Sidibe is the only notable absentee for the French, while midfielder Blaise Matuidi is expected to be fit and available for selection after being forced off the field in the semifinal, following a rough challenge from Eden Hazard. Deschamps isn’t expected to make any changes to the side that defeated the Red Devils last time out, with the 4-2-3-1 setup that has worked so well for his side in Russia, expected to remain intact.

Moscow will provide the setting for the biggest match of the summer (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Moscow will provide the setting for the biggest match of the summer (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Captain Hugo Lloris will look to lead by example, as he has done so far this summer, with another solid showing between the sticks. At right-back, the young Benjamin Pavard has been a revelation, but will have a tough time dealing with the threat of Ivan Perisic. On the opposite side, Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez should once again feature.

Raphael Varane has been a standout performer for Les Bleus in the heart of the defence and will be tasked with keeping the dangerous Mario Mandzukic quiet. He will be partnered by Samuel Umtiti, who was France’s hero in the last game.

The midfield partnership of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba has worked wonders for France so far. The former has been his typical solid self, hardly letting anything get past him, while the latter has shown great responsibility and maturity in his displays. The duo will be key to cutting out the influence of Croatia’s midfield combo of Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

The disciplined Matuidi is expected to feature out on the left-flank, while the major attacking threat will be carried by the duo of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe. Both the forwards have netted three times each and will once again have pivotal roles to play. Olivier Giroud is expected to continue as the lone frontman, despite not opening his goal-scoring account in Russia yet.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Kante, Pogba; Mbappe, Griezmann, Matuidi; Giroud;

Croatia

The Croatians have no major injury concerns heading into the final, however, there are likely to be some tired legs after having played three 120-minute matches on the trot. Mandzukic, who struggled with cramps against England, should be fit enough to start, meaning there are no changes expected from Dalic either.

Danijel Subasic has been one of the unsung heroes for Croatia in the tournament, putting in some splendid performances between the sticks. The fans will be expecting more of the same from the AS Monaco goalie on Sunday.

However, he will need all the support and protection that he can get from the back four of Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinic. The Croatian backline looked susceptible to pace against England and that will be a major cause for concern, given the likes of Mbappe and Griezmann could wreak havoc with their speed.

Inter Milan star Marcelo Brozovic should start as the deepest of the three midfielders, to provide the defensive shield to the backline and allow the partnership of Modric and Rakitic to influence the proceedings in the attacking half of the pitch. How the duo come out in the battle against Kante and Pogba will have huge repercussions on the outcome of the game.

Ante Rebic has been a bright spark for Croatia throughout the tournament and will look to cause some trouble to the French backline with his pace and movement from the right-flank with Ivan Perisic looking to do likewise on the opposite wing. Through the middle, it will be the hero of the last game, Mario Mandzukic, who will offer great industry and poacher’s instincts.

Probable Starting XI (4-3-3): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinic; Modric, Brozovic, Rakitic; Rebic, Mandzukic, Perisic;

Key Stats

  • France and Croatia have faced five times previously, with France winning three of those games (in 1998, 1999 and 2000) and the other two games ending as draws (2004 and 2011).
  • Two of France and Croatia’s five meetings have been at major tournaments. France won 2-1 against Croatia in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup – Deschamps playing the full match – while their meeting at Euro 2004 ended in a 2-2 draw in the group stage.
  • The last three World Cup finals have all gone to extra-time. However, historically, only two of the showpiece games have ever been decided on penalties (1994, 2006).
  • Antoine Griezmann has scored or assisted 11 goals in nine knockout games at major tournaments (World Cup + Euro), more than any other player for France over the last 50 years ahead of Zinedine Zidane (8) and Michel Platini (6).
  • Didier Deschamps could write his name into the history books by becoming only the third man to win the World Cup as both a player and a coach after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.

Player to watch

Kylian Mbappe (France)

The teenage sensation is on the verge of making history in Russia (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

The teenage sensation is on the verge of making history in Russia (Photo courtesy: AFP/Getty)

The 19-year old sensation has absolutely taken Russia by storm this summer, with a series of scintillating displays throughout. And he will once again be the key for Les Bleus, if they are to win their second World Cup. Mbappe, having scored three goals in the tournament so far, will be looking to become only the second teenager to score in a World Cup final after the legendary Pele, in 1958.

The PSG star has shredded apart defences with his pace and direct running in the final third, with his performances against Argentina and Belgium standing out particularly. Expect him to be the biggest thorn in Croatia’s side in the biggest match of the summer in Moscow.

Prediction

France 2-1 Croatia

France, despite not hitting top gear, have improved gradually over the course of the tournament. There is a good balance within the side, the players seem well aware of what is expected of them and have delivered so far. All in all, this French side may not be the most exciting to watch, but is an efficient and durable outfit, with the right mental character.

Croatia too have shown great determination and character to dig in and withstand pressure – it takes a lot to come out on top in three matches that have gone into extra-time (two into the shootouts). In Modric, Rakitic and Perisic, they have some top-class players within the ranks as well, while the rest of the team has operated very well around them.

But man-to-man, France seem to have a slight edge over the Croatians in terms of quality. And this marginal difference in quality is likely to shine through at the Luzhniki Stadium, leading to heartbreak for Croatia and a second World Cup triumph for the French.

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