And then there were two…
It all began on March 12, 2015 – when East Timor beat Mongolia 4-1 in the first qualifying game – and finally concludes on Sunday night when the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow plays host to France and Croatia.
The Croatians, with their thrilling 2-1 win over England still fresh in their minds (and limbs), will believe anything is possible – and rightly so – but it’s the French who will start the game as odds-on favourites (10/11).
For France, the route to the final was a tricky one and, compared to the Croatians, they have had to overcome some big, illustrious names to take their place in world football’s four-yearly showpiece – Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium all having been dispatched along the way.
Yet, this run to the final had humble beginnings. Very humble in fact. Back in September 2016 a disappointing 0-0 draw in Barysaw, Belarus didn’t exactly get their qualifying campaign off to a flying start, but it did lead into four successive wins over Bulgaria, Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg. Their only defeat in qualifying was to follow – Sweden beat them 2-1 in Stockholm – but from thereon in it was plain sailing.
They arrived in Russia in good shape and as one of the favourites to win it. That they were also drawn in what looked a favourable group did little to deter experts and pundits who already regarded their squad as arguably the strongest in the tournament. And, despite a stuttering start against Australia, which required a late own-goal winner, they progressed to the knockout phase with the minimum of fuss.
A 1-0 win over Peru, which saw the name ‘Kylian Mbappe’ appear on the scoresheet for the first time, was followed by a 0-0 bore draw with Denmark – a result that suited both sides and set the French up for a clash with Argentina in Kazan.
This clash between two former World Cup winners was labelled as the first big match-up of the tournament, and it didn’t disappoint. Mbappe, having cantered through the group stages, stepped it up more than a couple of notches and, in truth, ignited the World Cup with a truly scintillating display.
His pace and drive were simply too much for Argentina’s disjointed defence to handle, and once he’d been brought down early by an outpaced Marcus Roho and the penalty dispatched by Antione Griezemann, the die was cast. Despite Messi leading a South American comeback, it was always destined to be a day of Gallic joy, and two late Mbappe goals effectively sealed the deal.
Another South American challenge awaited the French in the last eight in the form of the Uruguayans, but minus their injured striker, Edinson Cavani – he picked up a calf injury in the Round of 16 win over Portugal – this one had a predictable outcome. A header from defender Raphael Varane just before half-time and a second-half strike from Griezemann, which owed much to a horrible error by Uruguay keeper Fernando Muslera, were more than enough to earn them a semi-final place. And there waiting for them were Belgium.
Again, it was a tie that had the pundits salivating, with arguably Europe’s two top sides looking to slug it out for a place in the game’s 2018 showpiece, but the goal-fest that many predicted never materialised.
Instead, it was a cagey, tight affair that saw the Belgians have the majority of possession but without ever creating too many chances. While all eyes were on the French all-star attack, ultimately it was their rock-solid defence that won the day, and once Samuel Umtiti had headed Les Bleus ahead from a Griezemann corner it only ever looked like being a win for France.
On this occasion it was Belgium’s much vaunted attack that huffed and puffed to no avail, and a French back line that was ably assisted by the magnificent Hugo Lloris in goal saw their side through to their second World Cup final with some comfort. If you’re on the side of the French in Sunday’s final, take a better price about a draw at half time and a France win at full time.
Can Croatia Complete a Famous Footballing Fairy Tale?
The Croatians route to Russia was less straightforward than France’s and despite a 2-0 win over Ukraine in the final game of qualifying, they missed out on top spot in Group I – which was secured by Iceland – and finished in second. This earned them a two-legged play-off against Greece for a place in the finals; one they handled magnificently with a 4-1 aggregate win.
But once in Russia, they had, on paper, a rather more comfortable route to the final than the French. Three wins from three group games, which included a thrilling 3-0 win over Argentina in Nizhny Novgorod, saw them qualify for the knockout stages with plenty to spare. And it was just as well, as all three knockout games were to go to extra-time.
First up, in the last 16, was a clash with Denmark, which got off to an incredible start with a goal apiece in the opening four minutes, but then meandered off into one of the most attritional and thrill-free 90+ minutes of the competition. Extra-time was of a similar nature and only burst into life with just minutes remaining when the Croats were awarded a penalty – one that Modric saw saved by Denmark keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
The penalty shoot-out that followed offered an insight into the mental strength of the Croatians. Not only did they hold their nerve and win but Modric, with the earlier miss still fresh in his mind, was one of the successful penalty takers.
Another gruelling 120 minutes followed in their quarter-final clash with Russia, with 1-1 at full-time becoming 2-2 at the end of 120 minutes. And again, it was the mental strength of the Croatians that saw them victorious. Faced with a hostile home crowd and with the odds seemingly stacked against them, they held their nerve and with keeper Danijel Subasic continuing his imperious form they booked themselves a semi-final tie with England.
With the draw having opened up for them in a way few could have predicted, Croatia knew a semi-final against an inexperienced England offered them an opportunity like no other, and despite going behind early on to a wonderful Kieran Trippier free-kick, it was an opportunity they took.
A goal from Perisic with just 22 minutes remaining took the game into extra-time and while the general consensus was that Croatian fatigue would set in as the game wore on, it was England who suffered. It came as no surprise when Mandzukic sent his country through to their first ever final with a clinical finish after John Stones had for once been caught on his heels.
And there it was. Croatia v France in the final. Croatia, a country that only became an independent republic in 1991, that only entered international football in 1996 and which has a population of 4.2 million, now on the biggest stage and just 90 minutes away from being world champions.
If Carlsberg did footballing fairytales…
But it’s the final hurdle that will be the hardest for Croatia. They’ll look back at their 3-0 win over Argentina and claim they have already beat the best, but this was an Argentinian side that was a mere shadow of its former self, even with Messi at its heart. Events since have proved that.
So, Sunday will be Croatia’s biggest test by a mile, and with France possessing pace and dynamism beyond anything they have faced so far in this tournament, this will be one mighty test for them.
Croatia have spirit, desire, experience and, in Modric and Rakitic, two of the best midfielders in the tournament, but they will need even more to overcome a French squad who think this is their time. Two years ago, France lost to Portugal in the final of the European Championships in their own backyard. Even by their own admission, that defeat owed a lot to complacency.
They had beaten Germany in the semi-final and thought the hard work was done. It wasn’t. And that error of collective judgement will ensure they enter Sunday’s final with a completely different mindset. Paul Pogba has spoken of this in the build-up.
Croatia will be treated with the utmost respect and Didier Deschamps will leave no stone left unturned in his preparation. Tactically, the French won’t go gung-ho and will persist with their method of keeping things tight and secure at the back, while allowing Mbappe and Griezemann to express themselves in the final third.
And given the way Lovren and co struggled to cope with England’s pace and energy in the first half of the semi-final, it’s clear the French will look to expose this Croatian weakness. And with Mbappe likely to start on the left, his mere presence will hinder Croatia’s desire to use right-back, Vrsaljko, as the source of much of their attacking play. This subplot will be fascinating to watch unfold.
Croatia will need to make an impression on a French back-four that has been rock-solid throughout, and so will have to get bodies forward to assist the sometimes stranded Mandzukic. Not an easy task when Modric and Rakitic will also be tasked with stopping the runs and energy of Pogba.
It promises to be enthralling but we’re struggling to find too many reasons to predict a Croatia win, other than their indomitable spirit and mental toughness. They have been through a lot, and not just on the football pitch, and so never write them off, but other than a puncher’s chance for Croatia, common logic says ‘football 2018’ will be going home to France. However, if you believe the Croatians can make the football fairy tale happen, there’s a tasty 4-1 on offer about a ‘giant-killing’ in the final.