Appearing in the final for the first time, Croatia bring a rare fresh face to the pinnacle of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.

Croatia will hope that their fierce desperation to accomplish the greatest sporting achievement in the nation’s short life will enable them to lift their battered bodies for one, last assault on France in Sunday’s World Cup final.

Equally desperate, which is how it should of course be in the final, are a classy French team still stinging from the pain of losing the European Championship final on home soil two years ago and in no mood for a repeat.

Appearing in the final for the first time, Croatia bring a rare fresh face to the pinnacle of the planet’s most-watched sporting event.

The Balkan country of four million are the 13th team to reach a final but will seek to join an even more exclusive club of eight who have won the trophy.

They start as strong outsiders against a French team seeking their second title following their triumph on home soil in 1998, and they would not want it any other way.

That burning inner fire helped carry Croatia to the semi-finals of their first World Cup in 1998 where the dream run was ended by France.

After that they failed to again reach the knockout phase until this tournament, where they have had to channel the spirit of those pathfinders of 20 years ago to surpass their achievement.

All three of Croatia’s knockout games in Russia have gone to extra time while France, who also have an extra day’s rest, completed theirs in regulation.

A general view of the Luzhniki stadium, venue for the 2018 FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia, in Moscow.

A general view of the Luzhniki stadium, venue for the 2018 FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia, in Moscow.
 
| Photo Credit: Laurence Griffiths

In their semi-final victory over England, however, it was the Croatians who seemed able to find a hidden gear in the extra period, looking fresher and stronger despite their exertions of needing penalties to get past Denmark and Russia.

When they should have been on their knees they instead started to show glimpses of the attacking brilliance that had blown away Argentina in one of the most impressive performances of the group stage.

They struggled to find any of that sort of rhythm against the obdurate Danes and Russians but did display their other key characteristic – the will to keep fighting when things get tough.

They are in the final after coming from behind in all three knockout games, while France have not trailed in any of their six matches. “We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character and we have shown that again,” coach Zlatko Dalic said after the England victory.

Elite players

It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that Croatia have got so far purely on effort and application, as a glance at the elite clubs represented by their probable starting team reveals.

There is technical ability in every department but, at the heart of it all, has been Luka Modric, who will win his 112th cap in the final.

The midfielder’s controlled probing and passing combined with his constant buzzing movement and authority extracts the best of those around him.

France know that keeping him quiet is their key challenge, and in N’Golo Kante, they have the perfect man to do it.

Kante’s calm smothering of rivals’ attacks, brilliantly showcased in suppressing the threat of Belgium in the semi-final, gives the French defence more time to organise themselves, and they have consequently looked assured throughout.

Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained the team to their 1998 triumph operating as a “water carrier” knows better than most how essential that grunt work is to any team’s success.

That is not to say that France do not have their own deadly weapons, with teenager Kylian Mbappe arguably the most exciting talent in the tournament.

Much weighs on his 19-year-old shoulders as his goalless frontline partner Olivier Giroud, for all his solid target-man displays, is not playing like a man to strike fear into the heart of an opponent.

France were hot favourites to beat Portugal in the Euro 2016 final in Paris but never got going and lost 1-0.

Deschamps says he still feels the pain of that defeat and he and his players will use it to ensure they treat Croatia with the utmost respect.

Like Dalic, he has praised the mental strength of his team, particularly in the testing semi against Belgium.

So, like many a final before, Sunday’s showdown might begin as a battle of skill, but is likely to be decided by the battle of will.

World Cup: Road to the final

France play Croatia in the World Cup final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday. Here is each team’s path to the showpiece match.

France

Group stage: France had a helping hand from the video assistant referee (VAR) in their World Cup opener and a dash of good fortune when Paul Pogba’s effort deflected off Australia’s Aziz Behich and into the net to seal a 2-1 win. A low-key 1-0 victory against Peru put them in a prime position to qualify and a 0-0 draw against Denmark ensured they topped their group.

Last 16: A 4-3 win against Lionel Messi’s Argentina was one of the standout matches of the tournament. Goals from Angel Di Maria and Gabriel Mercado cancelled out an early Antoine Griezmann penalty before Benjamin Pavard struck a wonderful equaliser and teenager Kylian Mbappe scored twice. A late Sergio Aguero goal was not enough to save Argentina.

Quarterfinal: France had far too much quality for a Uruguay side missing in-form forward Edinson Cavani, winning 2-0. Defender Raphael Varane headed France ahead towards the end of the first half and Griezmann scored thanks to a terrible error by goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.

Semifinal: France knew they had a tough job on their hands to contain a Belgium side boasting Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku but for the second consecutive match they kept a clean sheet. Samuel Umtiti scored the winner in the second half from Griezmann’s corner to take the team through to their third World Cup final as 1-0 winners.

Croatia

Group stage: Croatia were one of only three teams in Russia to win all three of their group matches, beating Nigeria 2-0 in their opener and Iceland 2-1 in their final game. But their standout performance came in their second match, when they swept aside two-time winners Argentina 3-0 to make a huge statement of intent.

Last 16: Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was the hero, saving three penalties in the shootout as Croatia squeezed past Denmark. Earlier, they had conceded a goal in the opening minute but hit back quickly to equalise through Mario Mandzukic. Luka Modric missed a penalty shortly before the end of extra-time but Croatia survived.

Quarterfinal: Croatia looked like they would have too much quality for a solid but limited Russia side but were again taken to extra-time and penalties. Goals from Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida cancelled out a Denis Cheryshev opener but Croatia watched in agony as Mario Fernandes snatched a late equaliser. Ivan Rakitic struck the decisive penalty to send his side through to the semi-finals.

Semifinal: Croatia were again forced to dig deep against England. Zlatko Dalic’s side looked in deep trouble after conceding a early goal in Moscow but regrouped to equalise midway through the second half. Despite dominating the second period they were unable to force a winner until deep into extra-time, when Mandzukic struck to break English hearts and win the match 2-1.

Luka Modric v N’golo Kante

While the fluid nature of the modern game ensures there are rarely exclusive head-to-head battles in the midfield, there is little doubt the performances of Modric and Kante will be key to the destination of the World Cup.

Modric, technically gifted and rich in big match experience after winning four Champions League titles in five seasons at Real Madrid, is the beating heart of the Croatia team and can be elusive as he prompts, probes and switches the line of attack.

Apparently indefatigable, Modric plays a full role in the defensive effort and has the ability to suddenly pull a defence-splitting pass out of the bag at a key moment.

When Kante plays well, France play well is a saying with much currency largely because of the holding midfielder’s ability to snuff out danger in the space in front of the back four.

His distribution skills also help in the rapid transition from defence to attack that make France such a threat on the break, and he sometimes has an eye for goal himself, often popping up with a raking shot from the edge of the box.

Kylian Mbappe v Dejan Lovren

Teenager Mbappe is already established as one of the players of the tournament with his raw pace causing huge problems for opposing defences from the start of France’s campaign.

His two goals against Argentina in the round of 16 illustrated that he has a sublime touch to go with his blinding speed and although he has not found the net since, no defender is going to enjoy an evening trying to contain him.

Lovren and Domagoj Vida have formed a rock-solid central defensive partnership for Croatia during the run to the final, encapsulating the backs-to-the-wall attitude of their resilient side.

They were exposed early in the semi-final by the pace of Raheem Sterling, however, and in Mbappe they face a player with a considerably better record of delivering the final product than the England forward.

Ivan Perisic v Benjamin Pavard

Perisic was Man of the Match in the semi-final against England after scoring Croatia’s equaliser and then providing the assist with a looping header for Mario Mandzukic’s winner.

A player who thrives on confidence, the Inter Milan wingback tormented England’s Kyle Walker in the second half after he had been given licence to push forward down the left flank.

Pavard came into the French side at the start of the tournament as a replacement for the injured Djibril Sidibe and has played well enough to maintain his position even though the incumbent right back has regained fitness.

His magnificent half-volleyed strike in the last 16 match against Argentina was his most high-profile contribution to the run to the final but more important, perhaps, was his part in keeping the likes of Belgium’s Eden Hazard quiet.

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