All or nothing
Glory and despair await France and Croatia
European nations clash in biggest game in sport as they bid to become champions of the world
This is it. The biggest prize in all of sport. This will be the most important two hours in the careers of every single player that will take to the Luzhniki Stadium pitch in Moscow. This is what decides the good from the greats, this is where men transcend into giants. Make no mistake about it, not a single player will leave anything behind. There will be blood, sweat and tears. There will be heaven and there will be hell.
Logic dictates that the fitter and younger team will win the final. Logic dictates that the team filled to the brim with household names will dominate a team that has but a few stars in its ranks. Logic dictates the country that has produced footballers such as Zinedine Zidane, Michell Platini and Thierry Henry will absolutely pummel a team that has never even reached a final before.
But these Croatian warriors burn with the kind of desire that spits in the face of logic. It is illogical for little Luka Modric to so completely overshadow men nearly twice his size, it is illogical for Ivan Rakitic to hold his nerve long long after everyone has lost theirs, it is illogical for Ivan Perisic to suddenly be able to fly, it is illogical for injured Danijel Subašić to suddenly seem larger than the goal, it is illogical for Mario Mandžukić to be invisible all game, only to appear at the best possible place at the best possible time. It is illogical for Croatia to be here. Yet here they are, one match away from pulling off arguably the unlikeliest triumph in World Cup history — deranged warriors willing to give up everything to achieve something that they would have been labelled foolish to even dream of while growing up in the war-torn Balkans.
This was hailed as Croatia’s golden generation and no matter what happens in the final, Zlatko Dalić and his men have become part of Croatian, and indeed World Cup, folklore.
But even the mightiest of warriors must suffer from the limitations of men and fatigue is sure to be a worry after three consecutive extra time games; two of which went to penalties. There is a reason why no team has ever taken this path to the final before — there is only so many miles men can run before they collapse. The mind usually goes before the legs do, but the Croatians have outsmarted all of their opponents so far.
These band of Croatians are such a wonderful anomaly because the logical script is not for them. In all of their games they have gotten better as the game has worn on, finishing every single one of them as its dominant force.
Perhaps it is because they have dominated possession in every game bar the one against Argentina, where they kept 42% possession but still won 3-0, completely shutting out the supply line to Lionel Messi. Their average possession is 54.2%, as compared to France’s average of 49.3%. By doing so they have managed to grind out their opposition, who have often been chasing shadows.
Their desire and hunger has outstripped their fatigue every step of the way as they have ran faster and further with every passing knockout game; 132km became 139km became 143km.
Logic dictates France will win, but the powers of obsessed mad men must never be underestimated.
Key player: Luka Modric
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage.
William Shakespeare’s King Henry said those words, but they may well be uttered by a more recent royalty of our times — Luka Modric.
On Sunday, he will go into the breach once more; looking to forever cement his name among the greatest players to have ever played the game. By far the best player of this World Cup, Modric has covered the most distance and played the third most successful passes in this tournament. More importantly, he has stamped his authority on almost every one of Croatia’s game in a way that stats can never truly encapsulate.
It has usually taken him till the second half to figure out what tempo to set but he has dictated proceedings almost completely once that has happened; not only recycling possession seamlessly but also winning it back once it has been lost.
N’Golo Kante has come up against the likes of Lionel Messi and Kevin de Bruyne at this tournament but he will face no tougher task than marking Modric. Of the various key battles that will be taking place all over the pitch, this is one that Croatia are almost certain to win; even with Kante seemingly in the form of his life.
How are you supposed to stop a man who continues to be his side’s metronome even when his knees buckle under his very weight? How are you supposed to compete against a man that makes the outrageously difficult seem elementary? How are you supposed to catch a shadow?
Modric is certain to never grace a World Cup ever again, but Russia 2018 should forever be remembered as the Luka Modric World Cup.
Once more unto the breach, dear friend, immortality awaits.
France go into final of a major international competition as decided favourites for the second time in two years but will be hoping they can overcome the crushing disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final to Portugal on home soil by winning the biggest prize in all of sport.
Arguably France’s best players in their run to this final — Benjamin Pavard, N’Golo Kante, Raphael Varane and Kylian Mbappe — did not feature in the 2016 decider and Didier Deschamps has reason to be more confident of his side this time around.
Those that did feature — Hugo Lloris, Samuel Umtiti, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud — will be eager to make amends; hungrier and more mature than they were two years ago.
The talismanic Griezmann will be especially hungry to silence the critics as his performances in major finals has come under scrutiny in recent years. The Atletico man missed a penalty in the 2016 Champions League final before being virtually anonymous in the Euro final a month later. While he recently scored a brace in Atletico’s 3-0 Europa League final win against Marseille, he needs to deliver at the grandest stages if he is to be considered among the best in the world.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that Deschamps has is the versatility of his starting eleven, which allows him to change formation and playing style midgame without altering personnel. Kante’s presence in front of the defence means Pogba and Matuidi are both free to make their marauding box-to-box runs, while the front three of Giroud, Mbappe and Griezmann interchange to devastating effect.
Their 4-3 win over Argentina and their 1-0 win over Belgium showed just how much they can adapt depending on the opposition and Croatia will know France have the arsenal to ruthlessly exploit any chinks in their armoury.
Profligacy though remains an issue, with both Giroud and Griezmann being guilty of missing several gilt-edged chances in the last couple of games. Giroud, who has just one shot on target in 14 attempts, in particular has been firing blanks all tournament but remains an integral part of the attack due to his ability to bring others into the game with his hold-up and link-up play.
Young Mbappe though will be licking his lips at the chance of running at the Croatian defence that is sure to have some tired legs and mind in it.
France are so overwhelmingly strong in almost all positions that nerves or complacency may well be their only possible hurdles. In the final, they threaten to blow the Croatians away.
Key player: Raphael Varane
It is one of football’s biggest tragedies that goalscorers almost always hog the limelight. This World Cup has been no different, with Mbappe and Griezmann taking most of the plaudits.
Yet no player has played a bigger part in France’s run to the final than Varane, who produced the finest individual performance of this World Cup in the semi-final against Belgium. Up against the tournament’s highest-scoring side, Varane became a man possessed.
The Real Madrid man is arguably the world’s most complete center-back at the moment and what will be worrying the Croatians is how easily he manages to repel attacks of all kinds. Blessed with almost unheard of pace for a centre-back, supremely powerful, calm on the ball and impeccable at reading the game, the best chance Croatia have of scoring is to keep the ball as far away as possible from Varane.
This World Cup has seen some jaw-dropping goals but Varane’s miraculous headed block off a goal-bound Eden Hazard shot in the first-half ranks right up there with the very best as one of the moments of the tournament.
Varane may just be 25 but he is the only serial winner in this side. It is no fluke that Varane is the youngest player to ever win four Champions Leagues. He has already played in 13 finals and is yet to lose any of them.
Varane — more so than Griezmann, Pogba and even Mbappe — will decide whether there is glory or heartbreak in France’s fate.
Story: Taha Anis