After 63 games played, the 2018 FIFA World Cup finally comes down to France against Croatia. Both teams played entertaining semi-final matches to get here; France had to survive a late onslaught from Belgium, and Croatia had to score in extra time against England to reach the final match.
The French team is seen by many as the favorites to win the final, but we can take a closer look at some of the more crucial points to see if they should be favored or not.
Fatigue: The last three games for Croatia have all gone into extra time, which adds to essentially an additional game played. That combined with one less rest day than France could end up causing a problem for the Croatians. Although both teams will likely have some tired legs, France should have the advantage here with some extra rest.
Quality of Opponents: Going by the FIFA World Rankings, France has had the tougher go of it so far. However, that’s not to say Croatia has had it easy. The average ranking for the French opponents is currently at a 13.5, meanwhile the average of Croatian opponents is at 28.3. That amount went up slightly by facing Russia (70 in the world ranking) in the quarters. Once again, France has the edge here based on the rankings, but there are no easy games in the knockout stages of any tournament, so it’s only a slight advantage.
Similar Opponents: Since they were in sequential groups, both teams faced a team from the others group in the Round of 16. Both teams drew against Denmark, France at 0-0 in the group stage; and Croatia at 1-1 in the knockouts, although they did defeat Denmark on penalties. They both also managed to defeat Argentina; Croatia won 3-0 in the group stage, while France beat them 4-3 in their thrilling Round of 16 match. Denmark proved tough to break down for both teams, while Croatia put in a more complete performance against Argentina. Advantage Croatia here, but not by much.
Midfield: This should be the most entertaining aspect to watch in this match: Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante against Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. There are others as well, but how well can the Croatians move the ball against France’s defensive midfielders? Pogba did some great work defensively against Belgium, and will need to do the same again. Modric has been playing incredibly well this tournament; and the Golden Ball could be his if he keeps it up. Advantage Croatia, if only for Modric and his brilliant work so far.
Forwards: Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, and Olivier Giroud for France, while Croatia contains Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic and Andrej Kramaric. Mbappe has been a revelation so far at this World Cup, and Griezmann hasn’t been too bad either; as both have 3 goals so far. Croatia has more team goals, but you could argue that their midfield has been doing a better job at setting them up than France has. Either way, France’s group has been playing at a higher level in their games.
The last time these teams met in the World Cup was 1998, when Croatia’s “golden generation” was beaten by France in the semi-final, and they finished third in the tournament hosted and won by the French. They have only met once since 2010, and that was a 2011 friendly. The last time they met in a major tournament was the 2004 European Championship, a 2-2 group stage draw.
Overall at this World Cup, France has scored 10 goals, and conceded four. Croatia has scored 12 and conceded five. France struggled a bit in the group stage, but stepped it up in the knockout stages. Croatia went in the opposite direction, struggling to defeat teams that were, on paper anyway, worse than them in the knockouts. They have conceded first in every game since the Round of 16, but have still won every game.
Croatia also seems to be more battle tested than France has, which could help them out some. However, most signs point to France winning this match and taking home their second World Cup. The last two finals have been 1-0 scorelines after going to extra time. This one should could still go to extra time, but with a different final score. Whatever happens at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, we should be in for a classic.
Prediction: 2-1 France, after extra time.
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