By David Owen
July 13- Twenty years and five days ago France and Croatia played out a cagey, tense, tetchy World Cup semi-final that France were expected to win, but ended up making mightily hard work of. A game of similar characteristics may be anticipated on Sunday, when the same two countries meet at the Luzhniki in the final of Russia 2018.
France earned the right to take on Brazil in the host nation’s dream final, as then captain Didier Deschamps will well remember, courtesy of the only two goals that superlative defender Lilian Thuram scored in a 142-match international career.
With both teams in the present tournament counter-attacking by inclination and with both sets of players knowing each other well – Atlético Madrid, Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona all have probable starters in both camps – the decisive intervention on Sunday may also come courtesy of an unusual suspect.
As 1966 is incontestably the greatest year in English football history, so 1998 enjoys the same status in France. There may soon be a second reason for this: it was the year of Kylian Mbappé’s birth, 165 days after Thuram’s unprecedented double-salvo.
The Paris Saint-Germain teenager’s pace, balance and footwork have electrified this World Cup, even in a French team sometimes criticised as unduly functional given the wealth of talent at its disposal. The Argentina match gave a taste of what he can do when unleashed with space in front of him. The savvy Croatians will not allow him that sort of room; but, equally, half-an-hour of Raheem Sterling in Wednesday’s semi-final against England showed that they too can be vulnerable to pace. Neutralising Mbappé will be Task Number One for coach Zlatko Dalić and his men if they are to threaten an upset against rivals who, while they may at times have been unexpansive, have no obvious weakness.
Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić will need to draw on all their guile, and probably the robust support of Ivan Perisić and Ante Rebić, if they are to win the midfield battle against a combination as powerful and energetic as Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and the underrated Blaise Matuidi.
The French back four, though exceptional against Belgium in the semi-final, is not yet on the level of the 1998 unit, and if Perisić produces another hour like the one he delivered against England, he will cause Benjamin Pavard problems. But Juve’s Matuidi and Atleti team-mate Lucas Hernandez will allow Sime Vrsaljko nowhere near the time he enjoyed for the second hour against England. And the ponderous if well-organised Croatian central defenders will need every bit of cover that the excellent Marcelo Brozović is able to provide.
I would expect France – who will not want to leave anything to chance against the most tenacious team in the competition and will certainly not want to risk penalties with Danijel Subasić guarding the Croatian goal – to play conservatively for a half before endeavouring to turn the screw.
If Croatia’s midfield master-craftsmen can work out how to cut off the supply to Mbappé, and if Pogba does not then rise to the challenge, there is a genuine chance of a surprise. But Antoine Griezmann is clearly more than capable of emulating Kieran Trippier’s exquisite semi-final dead-ball strike for England and, while he has been starved of the sort of service on which he has built his reputation in London, it would be no surprise if Olivier Giroud had his moment when it most mattered.
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