Orville Higgins | I say France but ...
Tomorrow the FIFA World Cup will come to an end when France meet Croatia in the final.
Withdrawal symptoms are already starting to set in. This tournament has been a strange combination of the unpredictable and the expected. Germany, Argentina and of course Brazil were all expected to go further. It's the first time that these three countries have all been out of the semi-finals in the same tournament. Nobody could have seen that coming. In a way though, the World Cup finals have followed a familiar script. When the tournament is played in Europe inevitably a European team takes the top prize. In an all European final the trend will continue.
Of all the World Cup finals in modern times this one is the least "sexy" in terms of an anticipated spectacle. I have not heard one single person who seriously feel Croatia will win. Going as far back as 1982 the final of the World Cup usually sees two football power houses going up against each other. This time, the World Cup final is like the sporting equivalent to David and Goliath.
If the game was to be played on paper France would win at a canter. This French team is arguably the most talented, man for man, in the world at the moment. When a country can unleash Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, Lucas Hernandez, Blaise Matuidi, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann, then the other team will have it difficult.
The game, however, will not be played on paper. Upsets happen and Croatia have showed that they are a tough resilient bunch who are prepared to scrap and scrape to the bitter end. Croatia do not have the same glittering array of stars but in names like Danijel Subasic, Dejan Lovren,Domagoj Vida, Ivan Rakitic, Marcelo Brozivic, Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic and Mario Mandzukic they can push France all the way.
Lessons to learn
What lessons can we take from how the teams got to the final? France finished atop Group C with seven points. In the first round they beat Australia 2-1, edged Peru 1-0 before playing to that dull 0-0 draw with Denmark with a second round slot already secured. In the knockouts they beat Argentina 4-3, blanked Uruguay 2-0, and then clipped the high riding Belgium in the semis 1-0. I had picked Belgium to win the whole thing and I am now feeling that anyone who can beat Belgium with their galaxy of star players cannot be stopped.
Croatia's path was not nearly as smooth. They were efficient in the opening salvos. In the group stages they beat Nigeria 2-0, demolished Argentina 3-0 and then edged Iceland 2-1. In the round of 16 they played out a 1-1 draw with Denmark in regular and extra time before prevailing 3-2 on penalties. Their quarter final game against the spirited Russians also went to penalties after a 2-2 scoreline. This time Croatia again showed nerves of steel to win the penalties 4-3.
Against England in the semis Croatia again had to go beyond 90 minutes. It was 1-1 after regular time before Croatia scored in extra time to send home England 2-1. You could make the case that Croatia have played another 90 minutes of football outside their scheduled clashes! Overall then France scored ten goals on their way to the final, conceding four, while Croatia scored 12 in regular time while conceding five. These numbers are too close for us to build a monument on them but it must be said that France certainly had the more difficult route to the final. France are expected to win in regular time but if it goes to extra time and penalties then Croatia definitely would have a real shot. The greater pressure in a shootout would be on France and pressure does funny things to players from the penalty spot This Croatian team does not have the same swagger as France but they appear to be just as tough mentally and maybe as fit as any team at the tournament. It will come down to the slick quality of France versus the determined never say die attitude of the Croatians.
The key player for France will be N'golo Kante for me. He is the glue that holds the French team together. His work may sometimes go unnoticed but he does all the dirty work in the middle. His tackling and his ball winning ability along with his endless energy allows the more creative players to concentrate on their job higher up the park. Modric is the man for Croatia. He isn't as flashy as the Messis and Ronaldos of this world but he is a sound tactician. He is quietly efficient and his decision making is among the best in the world. The game may well boil down to that battle in midfield between Kante and Modric. Whoever wins that battle should be on the team hoisting the trophy. It is ironic that the smooth French team has a rugged hard running player like Kante running the show while the workman-like Croatians have such a ball artist as slick as Modric pulling the strings. It almost appears that these two would be more readily identifiable in the other team.
So yes France should win and lift the trophy a second time. The result is, however, not written in stone. Interestingly both teams played Argentina in this tournament. France held on nervously for a 4-3 win while the Croatians were all over Argentina 3-0.
Can we take anything from that? Do those results suggest that this final may well be closer than it looks? Will David Slew Goliath again or will one of the pre tournament favourites be lifting the trophy? I say France, but ....