RUSSIA 2018 – WORLD CUP FINAL PREVIEW – FRANCE v CROATIA

So the denouement of Russia 2018 takes place at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow on Sunday 15th July 2018. It will see the 1998 champions, France, contest their 3rd final against a Croatia side who have battled and fought to deservedly qualify for their first ever World Cup Final. It should be a cracking game – my preview and prediction as below:-

FRANCE – ROUTE TO THE FINAL

Australia – W2-1 – Unconvincing VAR (correctly) assisted opening win.

Peru – W1-0 – Put under pressure by their opponents but always in control as they kept them at arms length, marginal improvement on opening match performance.

Denmark – D0-0 – Dire game, in a match where a point suited both teams and the longer it stayed 0-0 the more obvious that became. Worst game of the tournament by a long way.

Argentina W4-3 – Fantastic game and we saw what the French can do when backed into a corner. They led deservedly, somehow found themselves behind, then responded with 3 quick fire goals and held out despite a conceding in stoppage time. A massive improvement on previous performances despite some defensive frailties.

Uruguay W2-0 – Slow start and the opposition were the better team for half an hour. Slowly took control, taking the lead at a crucial time before being gifted a second. Held out superbly, with a much better defensive performance.

Belgium – W1-0 – Great tactics from manager Didier Deschamps, their opponents had so much more of the ball (64% to 36%) but a defensive masterclass from the French back line kept the dangerous Belgian’s at bay and to cap it all, it was a centre back who scored the winner from a corner. They held out very well to make their 3rd final.

Key player – Kylian Mbappe – he has been a shining light throughout the French campaign, even through the early stages where they were sleep walking to the knockout phase. Since then he has really shown what he was about especially in destroying Argentina and being the chief threat against the Belgian’s. He gets France up the pitch so very quickly with his pace and at key moments in their run has shone brightly. Maybe the final will be his stage in the start of what is surely going to be an outstanding career in all aspects of football with the quest to become one of the top all round players of modern and future times.

Notable mention(s) – I have had to pick a unit in central defenders Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti along with goalkeeper / captain Hugo Lioris. Their performances in the last two knockout games have been imperious and Varane and Umtiti have even managed to get on the score sheet too, with crucial opening strikes in the quarter final, then semi-final respectively. Behind them, Lloris has made a number of outstanding and at the times crucial saves to keep France either ahead or level in matches. After the 4-3 vs Argentina, they have, in my opinion, been the main reason for their tighter and more accomplished defensive performances. This has massively helped in getting them to the final and will be a key component  in their quest to win it.

Unbeaten throughout the tournament, the French have flattered to deceive at times, but when they have needed to put the peddle to the meddle they have been able to and win matches. Even if they have had to sit back and soak up pressure they have looked extremely dangerous, especially with Kylian Mbappe causing mayhem to opposition defences. They have looked far more solid as the competition has gone on and their midfield of Kante screening and Pogba creating has working superbly. I have not even mentioned players of the quality of Griezmann, Matuidi, Giroud let alone full backs Pavard and Hernandez who have understatedly contributed massively to their run to the final.

CROATIA – ROUTE TO THE FINAL

Nigeria – W2-0 – A dour game that Croatia won due to their better quality. Literally about just getting a win against a poor team.

Argentina – W3-0 – Outstanding performance, for me the best of the tournament. They controlled the first half and then once they got the opener, thanks to a goalkeeping howler, they took full advantage of their opponents capitulation, this was the day they announced themselves as potential tournament winners.

Iceland – W2-1– Already qualified for the round of 16, a much changed team still played to win against an Iceland side desperate for a result that may have got them through to the knockout phase. However Croatia played some great stuff after a slow start and won with a late winner as their opponents went for broke.

Denmark – D1-1 (after extra time) – won 4-3 on penalties – A slow start (behind after 57 seconds to be precise) but they fought back to equalise, then struggled when opponents changed tactics. Should have won in extra time, but missed a late penalty before surviving the ensuing shootout.

Russia – D2-2 (after extra time) – won 4-3 on penalties  – the match may have lacked a bit of quality but the drama was never ending. Behind yet again, Croatia fought back to lead in extra time but then concede and the lottery of pens would decide their fate again. They held their nerve against the hosts deserve a vociferous crowd being against them. Fight, spirit and bottle of the highest order.

England – W2-1 (after extra time) – Bested throughout the first half, lesser teams would have crumbled. After the break they wrestled control from the English and never really relinquished it from that point, equalised and should really have won in the normal time. They created the better chances in the extra half hour and scored early in the second period before seeing the game out to make their first ever world Cup final.

Key Player – Has to be Luka Modric, the captain and inspiration for his side. He has stepped up superbly in this tournament and even when he missed a crucial pen (which his eye of the needle pass had created)  in extra time against the Danish, he stepped up to convert in the shootout which helped his team win the game. His influence is massive, he leads by example with no quarter given and his teammates follow wholeheartedly.

Notable mention – Daniel Subasic – Maybe a surprise choice, but he has for me been up there as one of the keepers of the tournament. His performances have been solid, commanding and his decision making excellent. He made a key save at 0-1 as Argentina threatened a brief comeback when behind. Also important has been his demeanour during the penalty shootouts making saves at key times and is intimidatory style has been crucial in his teams winning against Denmark and Russia which has enabled them to get this far.

Croatia are also unbeaten in this competition. Whilst their route to the final has been more fraught than their opponents, their overcoming of adversity is one of the main reasons they will be more than worthy challengers for the title of World Champions. Yes fatigue may be an issue, but they have the players, nous, quality and heart to overcome that. Against England they started slowly but by the end of the game they were the strongest by some way. They will leave everything out on the pitch in Moscow just like they have in all their other games, which has previously been enough, so why not again.

PREDICTION

France are the favourites and rightly so in my opinion, the options they have are frightening. Croatia won’t be daunted mind. They will feel they can beat anybody on their day with the quality in their side, let alone the tenacity, fight and the fact that they keep going right till the end.

A big concern for the Croatian’s is how they played in the first half of the semi-final against England, when if the opposition had got things right and taken their opportunities, the game could have been done and dusted. France have better quality than the English, so they cannot be allowed that kind of opportunity, or things could get very messy for the first time finalists.

Styles will be key here, France have shown they can win in different ways, 3 knockout games all done and dusted in 90 minutes, all against differing types of opposition. Croatia have had to play extra time in all of their knockout matches (2 going to pens), but have been behind in all of them and whilst they have shown they can come back into games, if you keep going a goal down you eventually wont be able to respond.

There is a question mark over the France. As a young team they went out to Germany in the last World Cup and lets be honest bottled it to some extent on home soil against Portugal in Euro 2016. Croatia need to play on this and the longer the game goes without a breakthrough for the French the more jittery they will get and the more confident the Croatian’s will feel in regards of pulling off an unlikely victory.

For me France have improved in each match as the tournament has gone on, especially in the quarter and semi-finals and now after falling short in their last two tournaments, this is their time to make amends. Croatia will put up one hell of a fight as is their want, but in my opinion the French will be too strong. I predicted them as my winners at the start of the competition, they beat my outsiders Uruguay in the last 8 and I feel they wont fail me or more importantly themselves at the final hurdle this time. A 3-1 victory and a second world title for Les Bleus.

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