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On Sunday, one month and one day after World Cup 2018 began, it will culminate with the biggest match in international soccer. France or Croatia will be crowned world champions. Here are five things to know about the match and a prediction of how it will finish.

European teams are dominating the World Cup

An all-European final was assured in the semi-finals, when Croatia played England and France took on Belgium. Even in the quarter-finals it looked likely, with just two South American teams (Uruguay and Brazil) competing against six Europeans. Whoever wins on Sunday, a European team will again be world champions.

Of the last eight World Cup finals, including this one, only two have been won by teams outside of Europe (both Brazil, 1994, 2002). Take out Brazil and you have to go back to Argentina’s 1986 triumph to find a non-European winner. Europe of course has a statistical advantage, with 14 participants starting this tournament (13 qualifiers plus hosts Russia) compared to South America, for example, which had five representatives.

Croatia is the smallest nation in the final for 68 years

With just 4.2 million people (comparable to Oregon or Kentucky), Croatia is the smallest country to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950. Uruguay won, beating Brazil 2-1 (though pedantry insists I point out the 1950 match was not technically a ‘final’, but the decisive match of a four-team group). For perspective on what an amazing achievement this is, Croatia only declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

While not wanting to diminish their achievement in reaching the final, it should be remembered Croatia were fortunate to be on the far less intimidating side of the knockout draw. I previously pointed out England’s good fortune and Croatia had a similar run, drawn with Denmark, then hosts Russia, and finally England. None of the three are in FIFA’s top 10 rankings (Croatia are 20th). Perhaps Croatia deserved their luck after being drawn in arguably the toughest tournament group and then beating Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland to top it.

Luka Modrić Vs. N’Golo Kanté

I’m a big fan of Modrić, Croatia’s diminutive skipper, and Kanté, a pocket dynamo for France. As he has been throughout the tournament, Modrić was crucial in leading his country to a nervy semi-final win over England. Initially well-contained by a prepared England midfield, Modrić was struggling to get into the game as Croatia went in at half-time 1-0 down. In the second half though, he showed why he is one of the best players at the World Cup, drifting to the right wing and finding space to pull strings. Aged 32, Modrić knows this is his first and likely last shot at World Cup glory with his country and you wouldn’t bet against him putting in another game-changing performance.

N’Golo Kanté will be trying to stop him. The Chelsea midfielder is happy being the unsung hero of the French side (even if plenty are now singing his praises) and a key cog in their machine that has run all the way to the final. Since France reached the knockout stages, Kanté has been Mr Consistency, tackling, intercepting and hassling without the ball, and keeping France ticking with it. He did a great job keeping Belgium’s creative forces quiet in the semi-final and will be asked to do the same against Croatia.

Croatia are good at penalties. Are France?

Croatia have come through two nail-biting penalty shootouts (and three sets of extra time) in the tournament. In the Round of 16 win over Denmark, Croatia keeper Danijel Subašić saved three penalties and followed that up with another save in the quarter-final shootout against Russia. Croatia are only the second team in World Cup history to win back-to-back shootouts and if they find themselves there again, they will feel confident with Subašić between the posts.

France have not been involved in a World Cup shootout since the 2006 final, when they lost to Italy. They have avoided the dreaded spot kicks in the knockout stages and did the same during their run to the final of the 2016 European Championships. France might not need to worry about their lack of recent experience from the spot – aside from their 2006 defeat, only one of the other 19 World Cup finals has been settled on penalties (Brazil’s win over Italy in 1994).

France have been here before

This is France’s third World Cup final appearance in the last six tournaments. In 1998, as hosts, France rode a wave of national pride to win the trophy for the first time, comprehensively beating Brazil in the final. The captain that day, Didier Deschamps, will lead the French out as coach on Sunday. They have also tasted World Cup final defeat, losing on penalties to Italy in 2006. More recently, as hosts of Euro 2016, France were overwhelming favorites in the final against Portugal. They lost, 1-0.

This is Croatia’s first appearance in the final, an achievement that betters the famed ‘golden generation’ who finished third in 1998. It’s tempting to think Croatia might be happy enough with that, or tired from three rounds of extra time, but the chance to become only the ninth nation to win the World Cup will fire them.

Prediction

French fans might not thank me for this after I managed to get both semi-final predictions wrong, but I think France will win. Croatia have done brilliantly to get this far but they must be tired after such a draining run, despite what Modrić says. Even powered by adrenaline, Croatia meet a French side that have seemed capable of going up a level when they need to. Like the semi-final against Belgium, I think France will get a goal and hold on to it. I expect France to become world champions, with a 1-0 win.

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