The scoreline doesn’t indicate how well Croatia has played, but that won’t matter much to France — who are on their way to their second World Cup title.
Second-half strikes from Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe have extended the Les Bleus lead to 4-1 with just under 25 minutes remaining, and France is in prime position to finish at the summit of the 2018 World Cup.
First, Pogba followed up his own rebound after a blocked shot at the top of the box in the 59th minute, and curled a left-footed effort into the goal.
Then, Mbappe followed up the effort with a brilliant strike towards the near post after some quality individual work to create a lane to shoot.
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:
From Russia’s blowout opener and the Spain-Portugal thriller right down to Wednesday’s semifinal tussle between Croatia and England, this tournament has been as close to unforgettable as we’ve seen in some time.
The ProSoccerTalk staff is answering questions ahead of Sunday’s final.
Forget their age, Who would you rather have in your midfield for a one-game winner-take-all final: N'Golo Kante or Luka Modric?
Joe Prince-Wright: Luka Modric on current form. But only just. Does all the simple things well and forces opponents to totally change their defensive shape.
Nicholas Mendola: Kante is amazing, but there are a few players of his ilk/style that can come close to replicating what he does so well. Modric types are more difficult to find, and given the insane year he’s had — much of it his doing — I’m amazed he’s been able to stay so laser-focused.
Kyle Bonn: Modric has had a wonderful World Cup and may win the Golden Ball, but in the modern game, N’Golo Kante is potentially the most valuable piece of any top European team, and any teambuilding starts with him.
MattReed: It’s such a tough decision because they offer such different aspects, but if you’re looking for a player that does what he’s asked every single match I’m going with N’Golo Kante. His positioning and tactical awareness are always flawless, and Kante’s ability to essentially serve as a fifth defender makes life very difficult for opposing sides to break them down.
Dan Karell: I think Modric. He’s just so good all-around, and playing at Real Madrid has taught him the defensive side of the game. He’s certainly not as good defensively as Kante but I think he’s so much better with the ball than Kante is that it outweighs the defensive skill Kante has.
Scale of 1-10, 1 being “not a chance” and 10 being “it’s haaaapppening,” what odds does Croatia have of winning on Sunday?
JPW: 4 out of 10. Croatia’s exertion have to catch up with them soon but France will be very wary.
NM: 3. I don’t want to bet against a relentless Croatia, but France has gotten it done without hitting its top gear. That probably comes Sunday, and the tired Bleus will have a trouble matching that over 90.
KB: 5! I truly believe this is a wide open match. Croatia has earned the right to have an equal chance at winning this game. They have tactically been superior to every team they’ve played so far.
MR: It’s easy to argue that Croatia has benefited from being on the “easier” side of the draw, but they’ve done everything necessary to take care of business and reach this point. That said, the Croats have played an extra game… and then some… with three consecutive extra time efforts. I just don’t envision them being able to find complete fitness ahead of the final, so I’ll go with a 4.
DK: 7. Croatia has defied the odds up till this point in the knockout stages and has grown into every game they’ve played. Assuming they’re still drinking some of MJ’s Secret Stuff and have energy on Sunday, they will surely put France on the defensive. If France doesn’t score a couple of quick goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, Croatia has a great chance to lift the title.
Are Croatia’s three trips to extra time going to crush them?
JPW: Not crush but hamper. France also had an extra day of rest and Croatia have wracked up the miles in this tournament.
NM: That and one day’s less rest is going to make a difference. That’s 90 full minutes and two nervy, adrenaline rides through penalty kicks.
KB: I thought they would against England, yet they were the team with the legs at the end. Hard to have seen that and then bet against Croatia on the grounds of tired legs.
MR: They’ve proven us wrong up until this point, so let’s not rule them out completely. Let’s put it this way though. If France plays up to its potential, especially having had an extra day of rest, Les Bleus will be champions once more.
DK: We’d have assumed, but somehow they’ve survived and continue to get stronger. After the tournament, these guys are going to all need a month-long rest in one of those cryo-chambers, but for now their bodies are holding up.
How has this World Cup affected Paul Pogba‘s reputation, if at all?
JPW: Enhanced it slightly. He’s played well so far without setting the tournament alight but you could say that about everyone apart from Mbappe and Kante for France. Deschamps has everyone doing the dirty work and Pogba has been a lot more regimented at doing that than he was in the past with France and Man United.
NM: His rep has been burnished, as he’s played in both advanced and set-back roles. Honestly, his performances may have justified some of what Jose Mourinho has chosen to do with Pogba’s immense talent.
KB: This is hard to say. We’re so used to praising Pogba on his standout performances with Juventus, but the way he plays these days he doesn’t stand out anymore, even when he has a good match. I don’t think his reputation changes much, even if they win the World Cup.
MR: Pogba may be one of the biggest winners of the World Cup regardless of result on Sunday. He’s taken a lot of heat at Manchester United for not being able to adapt and at times being selfish, but this tournament has shown his willingness to put ego aside and take the squad’s needs to heart. The semifinal performance against Belgium really shed some light on his recent change in play by just breaking up balls and clogging the midfield for Les Bleus.
DK: It’s a tough call. I think part of Pogba’s problem is he is so skilled in so many areas – technique on the ball, speed, strength, aerial ability – that he wants to be 4 players in one instead of just being the best Pogba. In the game against Belgium, he completely wore down Fellaini, no small task against his Man United teammate, and showed excellent control on the ball and vision to keep the ball moving and keep it away from Belgium, or find Mbappe in space down the wings. If that’s Pogba at his best, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.
Who deserves the World Cup’s Golden Ball?
JPW: Probably Modric. He’s been sublime. Kante should be in the running too and if Mbappe scores a few in the final, he may well get it.
NM: Modric is the favorite, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Antoine Griezmann pass Modric and Kylian Mbappe with a fine final.
KB: Whoever has a better match, Mbappe or Modric, will win the Golden Ball. They have both been stunning this tournament.
MR: It has to be Kylian Mbappe. He’s playing on the best team in the tournament right now, but more importantly he’s carrying their attack. Antoine Griezmann has been largely disappointing in this World Cup, while Olivier Giroud has been nearly nonexistent. Had it not been for Mbappe’s pace and skill, France wouldn’t be at this point.
DK: Two words. Luka Modric. Yes, Harry Kane has 6 goals and has been brilliant. But he’s failed to score in each of England’s last two games and he’s also failed to make a real impact on the game. Modric meanwhile has been absolutely stellar for the entire tournament. His consistency is unparalleled and he is a joy to watch. 2nd place would be for N’Golo Kante.
Barring a 4-goal night from Griezmann or Mbappe, Harry Kane will have at least a share of the Golden Boot. Where does he rank in the world right now, as an impact player? Top Five? Top Ten?
JPW: Top five. He delivered in most of England’s games and you would have put your mortgage on him scoring at least one of his two big chances vs. Croatia. Wasn’t meant to be.
NM: He’s on the edge of the Top Five, though admittedly he’s sitting there more for club play than the World Cup. That said, he was quite good even when not facing Panama.
KB: If you asked me 2 weeks ago, I would have told you he ranked in the top 5 strikers in the world, without a doubt. But he underwhelmed in the knockout stages, and I still have questions about his ability to carry a team and produce something out of nothing like a world class striker can. He hasn’t played in too many extra-high leverage matches in his career, and that needs to happen before we consider him world class.
MR: You’re talking about two very different Harry Kane-s. The Tottenham Kane is arguably the best striker in the world. He’s probably a top 5 impact player when with Spurs, but this showing with England was honestly a bit disappointing for me. Some of that has to do with the fact that many of the Three Lions’ attackers were less than impressive, but half of Kane’s goals came from the penalty spot and he only scored once after the group stage. This World Cup won’t hurt his overall stock, but it’s very easy to argue that he wasn’t the best striker in Russia.
DK: Against Sweden and Croatia, his stock dropped significantly. But I’d still say he’s one of the 10 best players in the world. Like Luis Suarez and other great poachers, he has a great knack for being in the right place at the right time, and he’s clinical in front of goal, whether from 12 yards out or 18.
It is not coming home, Pt. 1: Where will time see this England side? Are they a nation returning to consistent contender status, or simply the recipients of good performances and a friendly bracket?
JPW: They’ve given their fans hope but you can’t deny this was a golden chance to reach the final. They were on the easier side of the bracket but this is a young team and they’ll be together for EURO 2020. I expect them to do well in that tournament too with Gareth Southgate at the helm.
NM: The Three Lions were inspiring for the entire run, even in the face of a shaken extra time performance. England is probably set to remain a second-tier team, not too bothered in qualifying but not favored to get to a semi-final. Kane’s continued growth along with consistency for Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford can make a difference.
KB: This is a team on the rise. Gareth Southgate made tactical mistakes in the loss to Croatia, but he is the right man forward, and hopefully England sticks with him through thick and thin. Only Young, Vardy, Delph, and Rose are at an advanced age and will be unlikely to take part in 2022. There is more young talent coming through (think: Sessegnon and Alexander-Arnold). Southgate is a great talent evaluator (think: discovering Maguire as a true international). They will be contenders in Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup.
MR: Nearly everything went right for England to reach the semifinals in Russia, but make no mistake, this team is young, hungry and only improving over the next several cycles. Of the squad’s current 23 players, only eight of them are older than 28. The likes of Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford are going to be with this Three Lions side for a very long time, while some of England’s elite youths including Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham will surely make a push into the team. The loss to Croatia is a difficult pill to swallow, but Gareth Southgate’s men instilled a belief in the national team once again, one that will surely grow their confidence heading into Qatar and beyond.
DK: I’m sure time will see this England side as the beginning of a great generation, with Kane, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier, John Stones, Jordan Pickford and many more still very young, with more talent challenging the starters coming from the youth ranks. England were awarded plenty of luck from the draw but that’s part of the fun of a World Cup, sometimes you get that luck and sometimes you have to earn it in harder circumstances, like France has from its side of the bracket. Ultimately, this England team made fans believe again and that’s a feat no one would have expected heading into the tournament.
It is not coming home, Pt. 2: Where is it going, and what score line will it bring with it?
JPW: France will win. 3-1.
NM: France, 3-1. It’s 2-0 for a while before Croatia pulls one back and France quickly answers through a substitute.
KB: France takes it on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
MR: France, 2-1.
DK: I think it’s going to Croatia. 2-1 winners. After extra time. Because of course.
The France midfielder took to Twitter shortly after France beat Belgium late Tuesday to advance to the World Cup final. He posted the boys’ photos and said the victory “goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong.”
Why France will win the tournament: Following a 2-0 defeat of Uruguay in Friday’s quarterfinal, manager Didier Deschamps noted that Les Bleus relative inexperience peeks out at times.
That might be helping France, who has built its tournament acumen back up following the embarrassment of 2010 in South Africa. France lost to eventual champions Spain at EURO 2012, then again fell to a champion when Germany knocked the French out at the quarterfinal stage of the 2014 World Cup.
The French then (mostly) bossed the home EURO 2016 and the final despite losing to Eder‘s extra time tally in setting the stage for this summer in Russia.
France has survived legacy-desperate Lionel Messi and Argentina (just, really) and a feisty Uruguay despite still waiting to get consistent star turns from Samuel Umtiti and Hugo Lloris (though the backstop made a magnificent save late in the first half Friday versus the South American side.
Olivier Giroud, a man known for big goals, also is still waiting to break onto the score sheet. France has thrived through a kid (Kylian Mbappe), a dominating should-be Ballon d’Or candidate (N'Golo Kante), and two stars attackers doing it loudly (Antoine Griezmann) and quietly (Paul Pogba).
Throw in Raphael Varane, and France has been steady up the middle. If they can get past Belgium, which this post assumes they do thanks to the title, find us a team on the other side of the bracket equipped to punish the French. England? Sweden? Russia?
No, it would come down to Croatia. And right now we’d sign up for that feast of football… and expect Les Bleus to emerge victorious.