The semifinals did not disappoint and France and Croatia have emerged as the 2018 FIFA World Cup’s two finalists. For France, many may be surprised that a team so young has weathered the storm and made it this far. As for Croatia, the shock is that the Mediterranean nation has a population of just 4.1 million, less than half of the population of the metropolitan Paris area. Neither of these teams entered as the favorites to win it all and, as of Wednesday afternoon, Les Bleus are heavily favored. The best part of the World Cup is that anything can happen in a one game, winner takes all situation.
After defeating England 2-1 on the back of an extra time winner by forward Mario Mandzukic, Croatia has now outlasted three straight opponents by going to extra time (the previous two were decided on a penalty shootout). Led by midfield mastermind Luka Modric, this team is experienced, strong, and has a clear identity they take with them onto the pitch each game. Their side-to-side passes and lofted crosses often create situations of uncertainty for opposing defenders, and with target men like Ivan Perisic, Mario Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric the goals are sure to come. Look for Croatia to try to peel apart France’s midfield with lots of interplay from Modric and Rakitic until they get to the final third where they will search for any chance to put the ball in front of the net.
In what many will feel was the “true final” between third-ranked Belgium and seventh-ranked France, Didier Deschamps’ young roster was up to the test once more (having already knocked out Lionel Messi and fifth-ranked Argentina in the round of 16), and stood strong against the star studded Belgians. Although they were outpossed 60% to 40%, France managed 19 shots to Belgium’s nine, including five on target. Samuel Umtiti’s header from an Antoine Griezmann corner proved to be the difference maker, as Hugo Lloris came up with some incredible saves to protect the clean sheet in what would end in a 1-0 victory. With star power in all facets of their lineup, France has the talent necessary to beat Croatia — however, their youth has led to bad decision-making and shaky play during the tournament, and the experienced Croats will be ready to punish them for any mistakes. If France is able to take better care of the ball and keep possession in the attacking half, they have the creativity in the final third to create multiple goals against a slower Croatian defense.
Players to Watch
France: Kylian Mbappe
At just 19 years old, Kylian Mbappe could already cement his name in French history if he continues his phenomenal play through the final. The PSG winger has been a joy to watch so far this World Cup, scoring three goals and wowing fans with his technical passing and inventive dribbling skills. Expect Mbappe to be highly involved on the right side in France’s attack from the kickoff, as Croatia has a weak spot at left back. If France is to win the World Cup, a young gun is almost surely going to have to step up.
Croatia: Luka Modric
Although he is typically not known for his goal scoring at Real Madrid, Modric has bagged two goals so far this tournament and has been momentous for Croatia on both ends of the field. The 32 year-old center midfielder may not appear on the statsheet as often as you’d expect a star to, but his presence is known and respected by the footballing world for a reason. Seemingly playing two moves ahead of his opponents at all times, Modric creates space for his teammates and provides an outlet when they get pressured. He dominates the game by orchestrating from the midfield, and will be vital to Croatia’s chances at disassembling this French team that has not conceded since the round of 16.