France vs. Croatia. Damn. Not too many would have picked this matchup before the start of the World Cup.
France had to take a long route to get here, making it out of their group with relative ease. They then had to knockout Messi and company in the Round of 16, in a 4-3 goal fest.
They then took down Uruguay, arguably one of the best defensive teams here. They put away two. Then there was Belgium, the pinnacle of competition, wrought with English Premier League players clashing with French standouts in Griezmann and Mbappe.
As a team that has faced stronger and stronger opposition throughout this Cup, it’s only natural we find them here. And we find them as the favorites, too. It’s been 20 years this year that they lifted the famed trophy, and they’re not going to let Croatia get in their way.
And would you look at that? Croatia somehow triumphed over England. Slew the Three Lions, if you will.
But with each passing moment it seems Croatia gets stronger. As head coach Zlatan Dalic said:
“Today nobody wanted to be substituted. Nobody wanted to say I am not ready. In extra time nobody wanted to be taken off.”
So to be fair, then, all bets are off on this team. They had a 3% chance of winning the whole thing before the tournament started, and now they’re in the final. Crazy story for their team huh?
Normally I’d give you an in depth preview about the teams on the pitch, but I’d like to give you a little background on each of the teams and how their stories have come together, off the pitch.
This team, on its side of the bracket, did not have an easy route here. In what was arguably the two best teams at this World Cup, we saw France and Belgium duke it out for a spot in the final. Some criticism has arisen for the time-wasting that France displayed toward the ending of that 1-0 win.
But other than that, we saw a France team who has really grown into this tournament, that cannot be overstated. We haven’t seen Griezmann put away 5 or 6 (he has 3), but as a team they’ve had different defenders score, driven by fantastic team play.
They’re an extremely dynamic team.
They bested a floundering Argentina, 4-3, and snubbed Messi and co. for possibly the last time to make it to the quarterfinals. We saw Mbappe net two beautiful goals (the only other teenager to do it? Pele).
Then they took down Uruguay. A team who had only conceded once in the tournament to Portugal. They were able to adapt to the lack of attacking options without Cavani. Suarez couldn’t buy a goal against the France team. Their defense was too good and their prowess on attack was too strong.
It means France can change its shape and style of play in an instant to adapt to the game, while still maintaining a level of play that’s comparable to the best in the world. What Deschamps has done with this team is awesome. It’s exciting football, to be honest. It was a 1-0 game between France and Belgium but there were 28 shots seen, some amazing passes, and yet another goal off a set piece.
The team we see before us is one of the youngest here at the world cup. Mbappe (19) has been on fire since his season two years ago in Monaco. Since then he’s lived up to the “prodigy” title, and has continued that to this world cup. He’s trying flicks I barely know how to do on FIFA.
Pavard (22), in addition to that amazing goal he had against Argentina, has been solid all around. The Stuttgart defender shouldn’t be surprised if he’s traded after this tournament. He will have his hands full with Rebic and Perisic from Croatia.
Then there’s Pogba, who has been pretty much dominant alongside Kante in the middle of the field. Pogba has been confident in everything from dribbling, to tackling, to passing, to putting his body on the line.
That’s something that’s been missing at Manchester United. That “next” level.
We’ve seen this France team go to that next level.
You want counter-attacking? Look at Mbappe and Griezmann to sprint up the field.
For a team that has been known (for the better part of my lifetime) as the team who runs against a wall when given a big stage, they might have finally broken that. It’s been 20 years since they’ve won the World Cup, and it might just be their time.
Buckle up for this one. This team had a 3% chance of winning the tournament when it started. For those who have watched the sport their whole life, you know how Croatia has always been.
A contender, but not a threat. What that means is, is that if you’re one of the better teams in the world, that Croatia might squeak a goal or two in on you, but nonetheless was the lessor team.
Calling them “second-rate” is harsh, but for lack of a better term, we’ll use “second tier.” Even as I type that, I don’t think that’s accurate. Maybe they’re the bottom of the first tier.
Regardless, no one expected Croatia to make it here. Hell, no one expected them to make it past the quarterfinals.
But they absolutely deserve it.
They had to beat Greece in a playoff to even make it here. They then were put in (before the tournament started) arguably the Group of Death, with Nigeria, Iceland, and Argentina. They won every game relatively handedly.
People’s heads started to turn, with casual fans thinking “oh maybe I’ll root for them. I don’t want to be rooting for the big names, and they’re good enough.” <– Smart people.
Haters will say they slipped when they played Denmark, in their 1-1 game that eventually went to Penalties. Modric, the Croatian talisman, needed some help from Subasic and Rakitic, after having a penalty saved by Schmeichel in the 116th minute.
There’s 120 minutes, 30 extra.
Then they bested the hosts, Russia, in another penalty shootout. Modric did not miss from the spot. Croatia didn’t misplace a shot here, and sent the hosts home after another grueling 120 minutes.
People were starting to see the determination that the Croatian team has. Then they faced the Three Lions.
An English team wrought with young talent, much like France. A 5th minute free kick had people thinking “it was over.” But the Croatian team had been there before. 3 consecutive games they went down a goal early, and all 3 times they came back to win. Yet another 120 minute game for Croatia. Add those minutes up, and they’ve played 4 games worth of playtime in 3 gamedays.
“Maybe that game has historical significance, maybe the dear Lord is giving us the chance to settle a score,” Dalic said.
“We reached the final, we want to play the final, France had one extra day to recover but there will be no excuses.
What the Head Coach is referring to, is Croatia’s previous best performance. They made it to the Semi finals in the 1998 World Cup. Who did they lose to? France, the eventual winners.
So while it might not be a matter of revenge, it still percolates in the minds of those Frenchman and Croatians.
On Sunday, when they wake up and get ready at the stadium for the final, this will be in their heads. The last two of 32 is finally here, 11 AM EST.
The World Cup Final. It quite literally doesn’t get any bigger than this – billions will be watching. That’s an actual estimate – billions. With a “B.”
My prediction can be found here, but godspeed to both teams. Its been an absolutely amazing World Cup, and the final will not disappoint.
Get hype, folks!