The 2018 World Cup will come to an end on Sunday, July 15 at 11:00am Eastern. After a tournament of uncertainty and chaos, it is France and Croatia who will square off for the right to be known as World Cup Champions. On Saturday (10am EST), England and Belgium play a rematch of their group stage game to determine the third place finisher in the tournament. While many expected France to be among the contenders (they were third before the tournament began with 6-1 odds), Croatia’s place in the final is a complete surprise. At the outset of the World Cup, Croatia’s odds to win were 33-1 tied for 9th in the field with Colombia and Uruguay. The sports analytics model at Five Thirty Eight had a similar prediction for Croatia, giving them the 9th best odds to win the World Cup (3% chance) and just a 7% chance of making the Final. France was 4th on Five Thirty Eight’s pre-tournament metric with a 16% chance to make the Final and an 8% chance of winning their second World Cup.
Only 8 nations have won a World Cup, and a France win would make Les Blues the 6th nation to win the trophy multiple times. This will be Croatia’s first appearance in a World Cup Final, making them the 13th nation to reach the final game of the competition. Croatia is also the second-smallest nation (by population) to reach the World Cup Final. Both teams have reached this point with a combination of timely scoring, solid defense, and excellent goalkeeping. The Final will likely decide two of the individual awards – the Golden Ball (best player) and Golden Glove (best keeper). France’s Kylian Mbappe has the Best Young Player award in the bag while it would take a hat trick by either Mbappe or Antoine Griezmann for England’s Harry Kane to not win the Golden Boot (top goal scorer) outright. The favorites for the Golden Ball are either Mbappe or N’golo Kante for France and either Luca Modric or Ivan Perisic for Croatia. The Golden Glove will be decided between France’s Hugo Lloris and Croatia’s Danijel Subasic.
Since Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, this will be the 6th meeting all-time between France and Croatia. This will be the second time the two nations have met at the World Cup, with France prevailing 2-1 in the semifinals in 1998 en route to their only World Cup title. The two sides also met in the group stage of the Euro 2004 tournament, playing to a 2-2 draw. Croatia has never beaten France with Les Blues earning 3 wins and 2 draws in the all-time series.
Nickname: Les Blues
Manager: Didier Deschamps
This is France’s 15th World Cup and third appearance in the Final. Les Blues will be making their third appearance in the Final in the last six World Cups. Both prior games were memorable with the French topping heavy favorites Brazil on home soil to win the 1998 World Cup, the nation’s only title. Then, in 2006, Zinedene Zidane memorably head-butted an Italian player in overtime and France lost on penalty kicks. France’s success in the World Cup has traditionally coincided with success in the European Championships. Their 1998 World Cup title came after a semifinal appearance in the 1996 Euros and before winning the Euro 2000 tournament. In 2016, France finished second in the Europoean Championship, losing to Portugal in extra time.
How They Got Here
France has only lost once in the past year, boasting a 12-3-1 mark over that span. They qualified for the World Cup by winning their UEFA qualification group which also featured Sweden and the Netherlands with a 7-2-1 record. At the World Cup, they navigated a defensive-minded Group C with a 2-1 win over Australia and a 1-0 win over Peru before playing a listless 0-0 draw against Denmark. France held their opponents without a run-of-play goal during group play with Australia’s tally coming on a penalty kick.
In the knockout stage, France got a challenge from Argentina in the opening round. After France took an early lead, Argentina battled back to earn a 2-1 advantage shortly after halftime, but 3 goals in an 11-minute span (including 2 from Kylian Mbappe) put France ahead for good. Argentina added a late goal in stoppage time but it was not enough and France squeaked through on a 4-3 advantage. From there, Les Blues locked things down defensively with a 2-0 win over a Cavani-less Uruguay side and a 1-0 semifinal victory over Belgium (the highest-scoring team in the tournament).
Players to Watch
The key to France’s run has been midfielder N’Golo Kante of Chelsea who has excelled in a defensive midfielding role, tracking some of the key stars from other teams and limiting their offensive abilities. He will likely draw the task of shadowing Croatia’s Luca Modric around the pitch on Sunday. Kante has also been able to convert turnovers into offense, feeding the ball forward to a talented group up front. Fellow Premier Leaguer Paul Pogba of Manchester United has formed a formidable pair with Kante in the midfield. While Pogba was the breakout star of the 2014 World Cup (and winner of the Best Young Player award), he has become a facilitator and distributor for this French squad, springing their strikers on the attack.
The French have a formidable group up front as well. 19-year old sensation Kylian Mbappe will win the Best Young Player award this year and has been a constant threat attacking back lines with speed and skill. Mbappe and Athletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann have been France’s leading goal-scorers, both finding the net 3 times. Griezmann also won the Golden Boot with the most goals at the Euro 2016 tournament. Striker Oliver Giroud has struggled to score over the last two years in club play with Arsenal and Chelsea and has yet to find a goal in this tournament. However, Giroud has served in a decoy role, being able to run off defenders to give Mbappe and Griezmann the space they need to operate. In addition to easily winning the Best Young Player award, Mbappe may garner consideration for the Golden Ball as well if he continues his outstanding play in the Final.
On the back end, Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris may win the Golden Glove for top keeper after posting 4 clean sheets through 6 games. Credit also goes to his defensive group, three of whom hail from La Liga in Spain. Center backs Raphael Varane (Real Madrid) and Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona) have been stalwarts with Varane scoring the winner against Uruguay and Umtiti netting the only goal against Belgium.
Nickname: The Blazers
Manager: Zlatko Dalic
Croatia gained independence as a nation in 1990 from Yugoslavia and gained recognition by FIFA as an official international side in 1993. This was too late to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, but they earned a spot in the 1998 tournament. The 1998 team produced Croatia’s best previous international finish, finishing second in their group behind Argentina then defeating Romania and Germany before losing to France in the semifinals. That Croatian team finished 3rd overall after beating the Netherlands in the third place game. Since then Croatia had not made a splash on the world stage, failing to advance past the group stage at the 2002, 2006, and 2014 World Cups. Their record at the European Championships was not much better with group stage exits in 2004 and 2012 and quarterfinal exits in 1996 and 2008. Croatia still has not won a knockout stage game in the European Championships after losing in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Portugal in extra time at the 2016 tournament. This year’s run to the World Cup Final is absolutely an historic run for the Croatian side that has earned the right to be called their “Golden Generation.”
How They Got Here
Croatia had a rocky road through World Cup qualifying in a group that featured Iceland, Ukraine, and Turkey. After a strong 4-1-0 start, the wheels nearly came off in mid-2017 when they lost back-to-back games to Iceland and Turkey. The Blazers then narrowly defeated bottom-dwellers Kosovo and allowed a 90th-minute equalizer against lowly Finland. The federation responded by sacking manager Ante Cacic and replacing him with Zlatko Dalic, a former assistant with the U-21 national team who had been successful coaching clubs in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The team coalesced under Dalic’s leadership, earning a 2-0 road victory over Ukraine to finish second in the group. This earned Croatia a spot in the UEFA Playoffs against Greece where they won the first leg 4-1 then played to a 0-0 draw in the second to secure their spot in the World Cup.
In Russia, Croatia stormed through their group with a 2-0 victory over Nigeria and a 3-0 demolition of Argentina. Like France, they only allowed 1 goal in group play on a penalty against Iceland in a 2-1 victory. Croatia was one of just 3 teams at the World Cup to win all 3 of their group stage games. Croatia conceded the opening goal in all three of their knockout stage games, but battled back in each. Denmark scored in the first minute of the game but Croatia equalized 3 minutes later then locked things down defensively and won on penalty kicks after a scoreless extra time. Russia also scored first in the quarterfinals but the Blazers answered 8 minutes later then took the lead in extra time only to see Russia tie it in the 115th minute. Croatia once again was able to advance on penalty kicks, ending the home side’s run. Despite conceding a goal in the 5th minute to England, Croatia came together tactically in the second half and scored in the 68th minute to draw even then in the 109th minute to earn their third victory of the knockout stage with all 3 games going to extra time.
Players to Watch
Croatia’s run has been fueled by a talented group of four midfielders who have strung together a combination of strong defensive play and quality in the attacking third. Real Madrid midfielder Luca Modric has two goals and is in the conversation for the Golden Ball award after his masterful play on both the offensive and defensive ends. Croatia tends to play in a very tight formation with their midfield, making it difficult for opponents to worth the ball through and also enabling them to maintain possession through short quick passes. On the wings, Internazionale’s Ivan Perisic was the man of the match against England with a goal and an assist and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic has helped control the play through the middle. Up front, Juventus’ Mario Mandzukic has been the lone striker and is tied for the team lead with 2 goals, including the winner against England.
Croatia does not have a single featured scorer but has been able to get contributions from across the lineup. Eight different players have found the net for the Blazers with only Modric, Perisic, and Mandzukic netting more than one goal. Croatia also has a strong back line made up of center backs Domagoj Vida of Turkish club Besiktas who scored against Russia and Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren. On the wings are Athletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko and Milan’s Ivan Strinic. In goal, Danijel Subasic may win the Golden Glove for the tournament with two clean sheets and four penalty shot saves. No one has scored more than 1 goal against Croatia during a 90 minute game with only Russia finding a second in extra time.