France are widely considered favourites to pick up their second World Cup title after their 1998 triumph on home soil, but dark horses Croatia will be motivated by the prospect of accomplishing the greatest sporting achievement in the country’s young life.
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Here’s a look at the two teams, their routes to the final, and their key players:
France came into the World Cup with arguably the strongest squad on paper, but there were doubts over whether coach Didier Deschamps would be able to get the best out of the numerous individual talents at his disposal.
But after lumbering through the group stages without really impressing, France began to step up their performances in the knockout rounds, eliminating Lionel Messi’s Argentina with a 4-3 victory in the Round of 16, before earning a comfortable 2-0 victory over Uruguay in the quarterfinals. They then dispatched a talented Belgium team 1-0 in the semifinal on the back of a solid defensive performance.
France’s most eye-catching player is teenage striking sensation Kylian Mbappe, whose searing pace has been compared to that of Usain Bolt — the forward famously unleashed a seven-second, 70-meter sprint against Argentina in the Round of 16.
English Premier League midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba have been excellent in the middle of the park, while Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane has led the defensive line.
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Coach Deschamps was captain when the team won the World Cup in 1998; Les Bleus, as they are known, also made the 2006 World Cup final, but lost to Italy in a match remembered for legendary playmaker Zinedine Zidane’s ejection for head-butting an opponent.
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Deschamps said his team have evolved since their disappointing defeat to Portugal in the final of the 2016 European Championships, although he conceded his squad was a youthful one.
“The 14 players I have integrated since the Euro final, they have only learned what playing a big tournament is all about here in Russia, so of course the experience is less but the quality is there,” he said.
“Croatia has players with great club experience and their squad has been together for a long time, but every team we’ve faced here has been more experienced.”
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This will be Croatia’s first appearance at a World Cup final. Their previous best was making the semifinals in 1998 only to lose to eventual champions France.
Croatia have made it to the final the hard way — they nearly failed to qualify for the World Cup at all, needing a late play-off win over Greece.
Once they made it to the World Cup, they were pitted against Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland in what was widely regarded as the most competitive group in the opening stages. They managed to finish top of the group, with a dominant 3-0 victory over Argentina the highlight.
In the meantime, they had cope with the loss of striker Nikola Kalinic, who was booted out of the squad after refusing to come on as a late substitute in Croatia’s first game against Nigeria.
The knock-out rounds proved to be a struggle, with Croatia edging out Denmark and Russia on penalty shootouts, before coming from behind to defeat England 2-1 in extra-time in the semi-final.
With three extra-time matches in a row, Croatia have effectively played one whole match more than France have, and also go into the final with one less rest day.
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Captain Luka Modric has been hailed as one of the best players of the tournament, and the Real Madrid star’s midfield partnership with Barcelona man Ivan Rakitic is crucial to Croatia’s hopes of springing an upset over France.
The technically gifted Modric’s midfield battle with France’s defensive midfielder Kante is one of the most highly anticipated head-to-head match-ups ahead of the final.
But it hasn’t been all about midfield play for the Croatians at this World Cup. Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic has made several crucial saves in the tournament, while forward Mario Mandzukic has offered energy and physicality up top.
Coach Zlatko Dalic described the match as a “seismic event,” saying he didn’t care that his team were considered underdogs.
“I do not give much thought to statistics and tradition and to head-to-head,” Dalic said. “Traditions are there to be demolished.”
— With files from Reuters
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