Whether France lift the World Cup for the second time, or Croatia make history with a first, everything will come down to a series of duels at the Luzhniki Stadium
The World Cup 2018 comes down to this and it will either be France celebrating a second title or Croatia making history. Les Bleus are favourites after reaching the final with relative ease while the Vatreni have battled through extra-time in every knockout round.
It didn’t look like it against England but fatigue could be a factor for Croatia. However, there are some key match-ups across the pitch too.
Modric V Kante
Luka Modric has rightfully taken the plaudits for Croatia’s run to the final and cemented his place as perhaps the best midfielder in the world. However, his side are yet to come up against a midfield of the quality of the French and while England had Jordan Henderson trying to provide protection, Didier Deschamps has the one-man army N’Golo Kante.
The Chelsea player had made more tackles and interceptions than any Croatian player and will once more provide that energy and ball-winning capability that makes France so formidable.
Brozovic V Pogba
Conversely, Marcelo Brozovic looks to have his hands full, helping out the Croatian defence from the obvious French danger in attack while also preventing Paul Pogba from influencing the game.
Kante and Blaise Matuidi allow Pogba more freedom and the Manchester United midfielder indirectly contributes so much to the French attack with his range of passing from deep. France have never lost a game with Kante and Pogba both starting, and while you can still argue that Deschamps doesn’t get the most from this outrageously talented generation, that combination is very tough to beat.
Mandzukic V Varane-Umtiti
Other than the last-16 win over Argentina, where France somehow conceded three goals against a pretty hapless Albiceleste, the defence has been superb. Samuel Umtiti’s power and Raphael Varane’s pace and positioning have made Deschamp’s side virtually impenetrable and for all of Belgium’s attacking weapons, they couldn’t find a way through.
Mario Mandzukic pounced on a defensive error to hand Croatia victory over England but such a gift is unlikely to be given by France. The under-appreciated Croatian will be limited to scraps in the final and will require a lot of support but even then, finding a way past Hugo Lloris will be difficult.
Perisic V Pavard
If Croatia are to manage it then Ivan Perisic will surely be key. The Inter winger’s pace and willingness to cut inside caused England all manner of problems and brought Croatia level in the semi-final.
If there is one point of attack it is perhaps France’s relatively inexperienced full-back pairing of Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard and so Ante Rebic and Perisic will aim to isolate them.
Strinic V Mbappe
Despite Dejan Lovren’s claims to be one of the best defenders in the world, this Croatia back four are vulnerable and aside from them going behind in every knockout round match, the opening 45 minutes against England was proof enough.
Raheem Sterling’s pace made Croatia very uncomfortable and that was when somewhat isolated so Kylian Mbappe running at Ivan Strinic or through the middle at either central defender could be decisive.