Top three battles in 2018 World Cup Final

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The World Cup Final is Sunday, and there are three areas which could tip the scales in favor of a Croatian upset or an expected French title.

[ MORE: PST’s World Cup roundtable ]

Kante and Pogba vs. Modric, Rakitic, Brozovic

Yes, Antoine Griezmann is a midfielder, but he’s a fourth forward if N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are at their very best. Croatia’s midfield triangle has been responsible for much of its World Cup success, and will need to keep that up if it hopes to collect an upset.

Mandzukic renews acquaintances with La Liga CBs…

Two goals in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid, one the year before in the final, and an assist in that UCL run-up versus Barcelona.

So, yes, Real’s Raphael Varane and Barca’s Samuel Umtiti have tangled with him a time or two. And the big Croatian striker Mandzukic really seems to be rounding into form.

…And Giroud versus Lovren and Co.

Olivier Giroud has yet to score in the tournament, but sleeping on his industrious performance up top is a mistake. Dejan Lovren has branded himself “one of the best defenders in the world” based on this tournament and his Champions League run with Liverpool.

If France needs to whip crosses toward Giroud, we’d expect things could look a bit like the below highlight reel. Check around the 1:00 mark of this video:

Why they’ll win the World Cup: Croatia

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First of all, relax — This is part of a four-post series making the case for each of four World Cup semifinalists in their respective bids to win the 2018 edition of the tournament.

That said, let’s talk about why Croatia will be lifting the World Cup trophy on July 15 in Moscow.

[ RECAP: Croatia outlasts Russia ]

Croatia’s path to the World Cup semifinals has seen two rounds of decent fortune after a group stage of dominance.

Vatreni could’ve knocked Denmark out with a late penalty kick before persevering from the spot, and Russia was a very difficult combatant in its home World Cup, but the team that clobbered Nigeria and Argentina before wearing down Iceland has had to show a bit more mettle in the knockout rounds despite facing two less-than-powerful opponents.

Now comes England, which picked up an impressive win against Sweden but has yet to knockoff a marquee opponent. Colombia was without James Rodriguez, Sweden had a good tournament but missed its retired superstar in LA, and both Tunisia and Panama weren’t exactly great shakes.

So it’s reasonable to wonder whether France or Belgium is a better final opponent for Vatreni. Like France, one of the best cases for a Croatian title comes in the form of a prolific striker who is yet to deliver much: Croatia has 10 goals at the tournament but only one belongs to Mario Mandzukic.

And then there’s the trio of players at the back end of their career primes: Ivan Perisic (29), Ivan Rakitic (30), and Luka Modric (32). The latter has looked like a man with a body 10 years his junior and a wisdom 20 his senior, and the trio is performing with the tenacity manager Zlatko Dalić showed at defensive mid during his well-traveled playing career.

Throw in fiery goalkeeper Danijel Subasic and a “greater than the sum of its parts” defensive corps, and Croatia can get the job done twice in the next week.

Modric “from another planet, comes here to play with mortals”

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Luka Modric comes “from a different planet … to play football with us mortals here,” says Ivan Rakitic, who alongside his El Clasico rival has helped Croatia to the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Best XI (so far) ]

Rakitic has been fortunate enough to play alongside Modric for the national team the last 11 years, as well as the legendary and transcendent Andres Iniesta since moving to Barcelona in the summer of 2014. A student of the game and a willing product of his environment, Rakitic has soaked up every last bit of knowledge and makes little effort to contain his admiration for his teammates and friends — quotes from the AP:

“It seems like both of them are from a different planet and they came to play football with us mortals here. Both of them are among the best players ever in their positions.

“If I created a football team, I would have both of them in my team. I can thank God to have the opportunity to play with both of them.”

[ MORE: Predicting the round of 16 ]

Ahead of Sunday’s round-of-16 clash with Denmark, Rakitic even went so far as to dub Modric the best-ever Croatian footballer:

“If Robert Prosinecki said that, it has to be true because nobody knows about football more than Prosinecki. And I would agree with him completely. Not only that Luka is the best player ever, but he is a great person, a leader and we are following him.”

With Modric and Rakitic leading the way, controlling and dictating anything and everything from the center of midfield, Croatia were arguably the most impressive side during the group stage and have positioned themselves — thanks to some favorable alignment on their half of the knockout bracket — for a potential run to the last four (or two) in Russia.

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

2018 World Cup team preview: Croatia

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Getting to know Croatia: Once part of Yugoslavia, Croatia claimed third place at its first World Cup in 1998. It’s been group stage only in the three of four tournaments since, and Vatreni has plenty of work to do in a Group D with no light days.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

No one’s going to like seeing Croatia on its fixture list, with Real Madrid’s Luka Modric joined by Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and myriad others with world-class skills and resumes.

For more history on Croatia, click here.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

What group are they in? D

Game schedule – Group D – Full 2018 World Cup schedule, here

Saturday, June 16: Croatia v Nigeria, Kaliningrad 3 p.m. ET
Thursday, June 21: Argentina v Croatia, Nizhny Novgorod 2 p.m. ET
Tuesday, June 26: Iceland v Croatia, Rostov-on-Don 2 p.m. ET

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1) – Check out the 23-man squad list in full

—– Subasic —–

— Vrsaljko — Corluka — Lovren — Vida

—- Badelj —- Rakitic —-

—- Rebic —- Modric —- Perisic —-

—- Kramaric —-

Star player: Luka Modric – The side’s best player is dealing with off-field issues, charged with perjury just this weekend in the same trial which saw ex-Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamic sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison.

The 32-year-old midfielder continues to be a key piece for Real Madrid, where he’s won four Champions League crowns and a La Liga title. Four times in the UCL team of the season and thrice in the FIFPro World XI, Modric is one of the best players of his generation.

Manager: Zlatko Dalić – Dalic took over Croatia with the side’s World Cup fortunes in jeopardy and delivered a second place finish and playoff victory over Greece. By far his highest profile gig yet, Dalic has had success in UAE with Al-Ain.

Secret weapon: Ante Rebic — The 24-year-old has scored 12 goals and added five assists in two seasons at Eintracht Frankfurt, on loan for Fiorentina. Likely to serve up crosses and combinations as a super sub, you’ll likely remember his name if Croatia maks a run.

Prediction: Getting out of the opener against Nigeria undamaged is fine, though getting a win would be a massive bonus heading into a match-up with Argentina. Croatia can get out of this group, though finishing as runners-up means a likely match-up with France in the Round of 16.