France and Croatia are ready to take each other on in the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday. Les Bleus are the favorites to prevail at Luzhniki Stadium but Croatia’s gutsy run to their first-ever final will leave Didier Deschamps and Co. wary, especially since the Croatians are looking to avenge their semi-final defeat in the 1998 edition.
Newsclick takes a look at the path the two teams traversed, in a tournament that saw many big guns fall, to reach the summit clash.
The beginning of a World Cup campaign is a cagey affair. More than winning, teams are happy to get through without a loss. And so it was for Croatia, who started the FIFA World Cup in their famous red and white checks (they haven’t worn the kit since), and inspite of an underwhelming performance, managed a smooth 2-0 victory over Nigeria.
The match that changed the FIFA World Cup. Three goals that turned Croatia into contenders, and Argentina into pretenders. A superlative performance, where they neutralised Lionel Messi, harassed Javier Mascherano, humiliated Caballero and put one strong foot into the next round.
Few teams can claim to having a second team capable of thrilling the neutrals (France pay heed). Fewer can lay claim to a ‘B’ side that can rack up results against tough opposition (England, look here). Croatia did both. They thrilled, they skilled and took home three points against Iceland. Not before they conceded their first goal of the tournament though – via a penalty.
Earlier on that day, Russia had dispatched Spain to the airport. That was a dull game, a game with few chances and more passes. Two goals in 120 minutes says it all. This one, the second game of the day, reached that mark within 4 minutes. Denmark drew first blood, and within minutes Croatia equalised. But then, it petered out into 120 minutes of goalless stifling. And then, on penaities, Croatia had their first knockout victory in 20 years.
The hosts in Sochi. A partisan crowd. A Prime Minister and a President in attendance. And then of course, Denis Cheryshev’s exquisite opener. Croatia took all of it in their stride. Bit by bit they built themselves back. First came the equaliser, eight minutes after Cheryshev. An hour after that came Domagoj Vida’s sucker punch. But this was Russia. Where even love stories are psychological thrillers. It only made sense to go to penalties. And it made sense when Ivan Rakitic, scored his again, this time to take them to the semis.
The moment Kieran Trippier scored the opener, you knew this game was going to extra time. This was five minutes in, and England were in the ascendancy, but you knew, deep down, that Croatia weren’t done. How could they be? All the talk had been about how they may be tired. They were supposed to be tired. But when England found fatigue, Croatia found a winner. And then, in their celebrations, they found a press photographer. Zagreb went wild. Less than three decades from independence, Croatia had reached the finals of the World Cup.
Everyone expected flair. A midfield of finesse, a forward line of pace, Australia were expected to be blown away. But then, the Aussies never take anything lying down. A 21st century victory was finally earned. First, the VAR penalty, then the winner confirmed via goal-line technology. France had three points.
A more routine victory could not have been possible. France looked in control without ever shifting out of second gear. The star of this World Cup, Kylian Mbappe, got his first goal of the tournament, and became the youngest Frenchman to score on the big stage. Peru were out, France were in. The question remained: Would the real France please stand up?
A game so dire, we will not waste your time with a picture. Instead enjoy this, a Gaul and a gallus.
After dulling everyone’s mood with the only 0-0 stalemate in the last match of their group stage, France finally got the correct script. Or maybe it was Argentina that forced them to read it. Either way, this was a thriller. The pendulum swung both ways, and yet in fairness it was always in Les Bleus’ control. Mbappe turned on his boosters, and Argentina were found wanting. In a week, when they compile the best goals of the tournament, three from this game will definitely find space.
After the storm, again, complete control. The talk before the match had been about Antoine Griezmann and his love for Uruguay. Inevitably, then he had to take centre stage. First the assist: a perfectly placed ball on the head of Raphael Varane. The team that didn’t concede had taken one from a set piece. Then the howler. Griezmann shot, Muslera fumbled, the ball went in. No one celebrated.
Arguably, the game of the tournament. The football of war. Defence vs attack. Grit vs flair. Pragmatism vs imagination. Batman vs Superman. Didier Deschamps won, like only Deschamps can. A step away from doing what only two have done before him -- win the World Cup as a player, and then as a manager. All while staying calm and getting the job done. No huss, no fuss.