World Cup Final, France v. Croatia

It’s here! It’s finally here! The best sporting event in the world provides us with a once-in-a-lifetime moment where 22 players and the two nations they represent will be watched by billions around the world for a chance at immortality.

Croatia make their first ever Final appearance while France make their third total, all since 1998 which is the most during that span. Both teams have deserved to get to the final (it’s hard not to deserve it in this type of tournament) but have had very different roads. In this preview I’m going to go in depth on how the tournament has played out for both teams to this point, keys to the game, what could be each team’s undoing in the Final and of course my prediction.

Let’s get this party started!

(W-L-D)
All-Time Record: 262-236-67

World Cup Record: 29-26-7
58% win/push rate in WC

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July 15, 11:00 pm EST
France v. Croatia, FOX

Croatia

It’s been one of the more interesting tournaments for the Croatians as they became the first team to make the Final after playing extra time in all previous knockout stage matches. But before that happened they had to get out of the group. Let’s check out their path to the Fina;.

Group Stage
Croatia won what was arguably referred to as the group of death, Group D. The reason why many thought it would be the hardest group is because Iceland and Nigeria had potential to pull off upsets and it was a toss-up to win the group between Argentina and Croatia. They ended up going 3-0 with 7 goals scored and only 1 conceded, and earned the right to play on the easier side of the bracket. They were able to run over Nigeria, dominated a world powerhouse in Argentina and stifle the tough defense of Iceland.

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Knockout Round
Everything flipped on its head in the knockout stage for the Croatians as they drew Denmark in the Round of 16, a familiar European foe with similar styles. After a goal from each side in the first four minutes, they remained scoreless for the other 116 minutes in the match and Croatia ended up winning on penalties. This was the match where people realized how much this team can outlast their opponent with quality midfield play.

After Denmark, Croatia were gifted something that changed the outcome of their tournament as Russia beat Spain on penalties in the Round of 16. After being down in regular time against a host nation with the entire stadium’s support, they settled in and calmly equalized 8 minutes after. Croatia found themselves in another penalty shootout and they were able to hold their nerve again against the host nation. But this match was yet another example of how this Croatian team did not give in, even when blowing an extra time lead.

Croatia then had to face their first real test in my opinion in England, a team who had a newly found confidence and a newly inspired nation propelling them. After being down early in the match against an England side who looked like they were going to continue their run of form, Croatia slowly started to work themselves into the match. They did this in most matches they played in the tournament as they were either down in the early stages of the game or were pressured early and they had to play reactive soccer. It didn’t stop working for them here as by the time they scored their goal in the 68th minute, they were dominating the match entirely. England were lucky to last the 90 minutes and somehow, someway it looked as if Croatia was the fresher side. Somehow, playing in their third consecutive extra time match, Croatia was able to dominate England in extra time and advance to their first ever Final after an extra time Mandzukic goal.

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Keys to Win
If Croatia want to win, they will need to limit France’s ability to open up the match. What that means is that France has a style of play that allows them to move the ball freely and fluidly around the field, forcing Croatia to play on their heels and forcing them to switch marks often. Croatia has yet to play a team that has applied this style successfully and if they want to be successful against this France team, they need to pressure them off the ball, create turnovers and not allow the passages into Griezmann and Mbappe.

Offensively, they will need Modric to keep playing the way he has. It took him about a half to ease into the game against England, but once he felt comfortable England had absolutely no chance at limiting his creativity. No team has stopped or even slowed down Modric in this tournament and he could be the single reason this team wins the World Cup. The small central midfielder can do literally everything on the ball and his motor seems to never slow down, making the opposition’s job even harder to defend him in the second half of matches. Another thing that Croatia has going for them is their supporting cast around Modric and Rakitic. Rebic and Perisic have been brilliant on the wings by getting into open spaces and wreaking havoc on team’s outside backs. When they are on the ball, it opens space for Modric in the middle and vice versa when Modric has the ball himself. And it all comes together up top with their big clinical finisher in Mandzukic, who can score on almost any shot he gets inside the box and is constantly waiting for his chance. If he gets his chance like he did against England, expect him to finish it.

What Could be Their Undoing
France is undoubtedly the most quality side this Croatian team will have faced in the tournament and they can’t let them get comfortable. France is a team that has beaten a Belgium side who figured out Brazil, an Argentinian team who put up 3 goals and a stingy Uruguayan team. In all of these matches they were confident going forward with the ball, found several different ways to break down defenses and put up at least 10 shots including 19 against Belgium. It takes a lot to beat this team and they make it hard to counter with the tracking back ability of N’golo Kante. Bottom line, they need to make this team uncomfortable going forward and they will have to try to slow the play down as much as possible when they have the ball, not allowing them to get into a rhythm.

Oh, and the fact that they’ve played 90 more minutes than this France team may be really tough. If France pressure and control the match for long stretches, expect the Croat’s legs to get heavy.

France

France have been the best team to watch all tournament and they deserve to be favorites in this match. From Mbappe showing the world that this sport will be his really soon to the creative and free-flowing style of play, it has all been special to watch. But in World Cup Finals, it matters what you do on the pitch in the 90-120 minutes. Let’s check out how they got here.

Group Stage
France won Group C with only 3 goals scored and they didn’t start they way they wanted to. But an interesting trend has appeared over the years for eventual champions; they get better and better as the tournament goes along. They barely beat Australia, only beat Peru 1-0 and drew Denmark on the final matchday. They weren’t impressive and many doubted them going into the toughest bracket in recent World Cup history but things began to change after the Group Stage.

Knockout Round
France started to pick up steam in their Round of 16 match against Argentina even though they let in three goals. France didn’t keep the majority of possession, possibly the gameplan considering Argentina’s lack of success when keeping the ball, but every time they got the ball they went forward with purpose. Mbappe was brilliant, adding two goals and drawing a penalty on an amazing run up the field and then they scored 3 goals in 11 minutes in the second half once they got confident on the ball. It was thrilling and France showed the world that they shouldn’t be doubted anymore.

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A Quarterfinal matchup with Uruguay proved that this team can run with the best of compacted, defensive units. Going into the match, this Uruguay team had let in only 1 goal in their first four matches and they shut down the likes of Ronaldo. France ran through them and for the first time they played a top to bottom match with little to no mistakes on either end.

They drew Belgium in the Quarterfinal, a much harder test than they have faced all tournament and they were coming off of a 2-1 win against tournament favorites Brazil. France didn’t dominate possession for the 90 minutes, mainly because they sat back and absorbed the pressure towards the end and they weathered a hot start from Belgium. But they put up 19 shots including 5 on target and limited Belgium to a 0.54 xG (expected goals) count, proving that they don’t need to play that open and free style for the whole match but instead find the right 10-20 minute span to apply that strategy. They were balanced the whole match and deserved to go through to the Final.

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Keys to Win
I’ve said it several times in this blog already, but they need to make sure that they establish themselves and maintain their style of play throughout the match. Croatia hasn’t played a team like this yet in the tournament, one who can open up the entire game with only a few passes and good off-ball movement, and if France can apply that pressure and make Croatia play on their heels they will be successful. Another key for France will be for N’golo Kante, who has been arguably the most influential player in the tournament, to continue his ability to limit the other team’s best players. All tournament he has tracked back tens of yards to win a tackle on a breakaway, he’s been the key piece in the middle in switching the field as well as dictating the pace of play and finally he’s been impossible to get past one-on-one. He has the ability to slow down Modric and that will be key if they want to win this match as he was crucial in stopping Messi, Hazard and De Bruyne.

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And lastly, France will need Griezmann and Mbappe to play well and score at least a goal from the two of them. Griezmann has been brilliant in the middle beneath Giroud providing a deadly give-and-go option and Mbappe has been the most dangerous player maybe outside of Hazard on the wing in this tournament. Combined they have scored 6 goals and have provided 2 assists and they will need to produce on Sunday again.

What Could be Their Undoing
Croatia has exploited the mental lapses from every team they have played in the Knockout Stages and they have been mentally stronger all around. With Denmark they gave up an early goal but caught them being complacent and scored 3 minutes after and won a penalty shootout, they were also down early to Russia in a hostile environment and ended up winning in another penalty shootout and finally they caught England playing lazy and scored a big extra time winner. France needs to be mentally on point especially after a long spell of possession, as Modric can flip the momentum at any moment. They need to mentally outlast this Croatia team, something that hasn’t happened all tournament.

Prediction
What Croatia has done this tournament, and how they’ve done it, can’t be overlooked when analyzing this match. But there are far more warning signs with this Croatian team than there are with the French. For starters this Croatian rotation of 11-13 players has played a full match more from their extra time matches than France has in this tournament. That adds up in tournaments like this especially with one less day of rest than their opponent. To add to that, they haven’t played anyone like this French team with both quality and style of play and they might not be game ready as much as the French are since they played the likes of Argentina, Belgium and Uruguay.

This French team is built for this Final and this tournament due to their open style of play, they’ve been getting better and better with each passing match and they have the starpower in every position on the field to handle the pressure of a World Cup Final. I like France to win the World Cup Final in the 90 minutes with a Kylian Mbappe goal early in the second half. Expect the beginning of the match to be slow as neither team will want to make any missteps and then expect it to open up as we go along. Croatia will try to limit the passages to the key players but France will find ways around that and allow space to be exploited elsewhere. France is just too good and they have the opportunity to really expose Croatia on a number of fronts. France (-0.5).

Another note is that the Over/Under total is sitting at 2. I don’t pick over unders but 6 of the last 7 World Cup Finals dating back to 1986 either were 1-0 or 1-1 (only 1 match of those 6 pushed).

I wanted to thank everyone who read during this magical month of soccer. It’s been truly special to watch this blog grow week after week and I couldn’t have been happier with how this tournament has gone. It’s been arguably the best World Cup ever and I hope everyone got to experience and realize how amazing this sport truly is.

I also hope everyone can join the possible 2 billion other people who will be tuning in on Sunday morning, as it will be the most intense and amazing things you will ever watch. Let’s go baby!!!

Much Love. Allez Le Bleu and Vive La France!!!

Stay Kickin’ It. Peace.

Twitter: @nicodegallo // @canikickitblog 

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Nico

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