And here we are at the climax of the grandest football tournament, the World Cup. After 63 games, the final beckons with France set to play against Croatia.
Croatia: An historic tale in resilience, endurance and balance
A month ago, when the World Cup kicked off in Russia, it would have been impossible predicting the finalists. It would have taken a preternatural level of prescience to stick out for Croatia getting to the finals ahead of the traditional heavyweights and visibly more talented sides. Croatia was grouped in arguably the toughest group of the World Cup alongside Argentina, Iceland and Nigeria.
Most pre-tournament prediction that had them finishing second in the group at best would have been deemed generous and pro-Croatian. After all, Croatia only just made it to the World Cup finishing behind Iceland in their UEFA World Cup qualifying group. On paper, they were no match for the Lionel Messi and the talent-laden Argentine side. Nigeria were coming to the World Cup with a young, focused side after a remarkable qualifying run in a tough group in the Africa qualifying zone.
However, Croatia blitzed through the group stage finishing top of the group with maximum points after defeating the other three sides in Group D. Dalic’s side stunned Argentina when both sides met, producing a master-class in defensive solidity and tactical balance as they strode to a 3-0 victory.
Croatia lucked out to the easier half of the knockout round where with each game they dug deep, displayed unflinching resilience strength and endurance to go defeat Denmark in the round of 16, Russia in the quarter-final, and England in the semi-final. Their entire knock out round games took 120 minutes with the Vatreni needing a penalty shootout to get past Denmark and Russia.
The victory over England in the semi-final was impressive as the team fought from behind to snatch the winner in extra-time after the team had played an hour more than their opponents in the World Cup. The team-effort and willingness to crank up the pressure against the Three Lions after Ivan Perisic’s equaliser was admirable. The team has already made history and won many hearts getting to the finals for the first time. It could have been a feat achieved twenty years earlier but Croatia lost to France in the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup. It was historic then but there remained a bigger feat to be achieved. Getting to their first World Cup final is historic already but Croatia will hope France doesn’t leave them looking at the greater feat they could have achieved.
France: Talented, efficient and solid side on the cusp of another star
Chapeau! Didier Deschamps has done exactly what needs to be done to get France to scale every hurdle. Just the perfect bit of adjustment, nothing more, nothing extra. Prior to the tournament, the narrative was that the side was far too talented for the minimalist coach. Despite getting France to the finals of the Euro 2016, Deschamps has not earned the collective nod of fans as the best hand to guide the side. However, the French manager is on the cusp of earning France a second star after he captained France to their first World Cup trophy.
The attacking transitions were not fluid when Les Bleus struggled to a 2-1 victory against Australia courtesy of a penalty from a VAR-reviewed incident and an own goal. Deschamps tweaked and France responded with a better performance in the win against Peru. With qualification sewn, France played the minimalist game against playing out a dour draw against Denmark, enough to seal top spot. It was all functional and efficient.
Perhaps, the outlier was the 4-3 win against Argentina, where Kylian Mbappe and France ripped up. The prodigy won a penalty and scored a brace as France sauntered into the quarter-finals, where they reverted to type against Uruguay, functional and efficient. After Raphael Varane’s headed goal, Hugo Lloris produced an unbelievable save before his opposite number Fernando Muslera fumbled Antoine Griezmann’s shot. 2-0 to France, clinical, opportunistic and ergo, semi-finalists.
All France needed was a headed goal from Samuel Umtiti and a stifling, solid and accomplished defensive shift against Belgium. The Red Devils were the highest scoring side in the tournament but the French side smartly snuffed out space the fluid Belgian side required to operate. France are in the final again after 20 years and the loss at the Euro 2016 final at home still rankles bad. Perhaps, they are due a win after that disappointment at the Stade de France.