FRANCE vs. CROATIA
This is not the World Cup final people were expecting and could have been a round of 16 match-up if Group play had gone to form. Instead, Croatia surprisingly won Group D by upsetting Argentina and thus got to face the 2nd place finisher in Group C, Denmark, instead of Group C winner France in the round of 16. The French barely got by in their high-scoring round of 16 win over Argentina, while the Croatians survived on penalty kicks against the Danes. Since then, France hasn’t allowed a goal, beating Uruguay 2-0 in the quarterfinals and Belgium 1-0 in the semis. Croatia went to extra time in both rounds, again getting by on penalty kicks against Russia and netting a winning goal against England in the semis in the second extra period. France was one of the favorites to get to the final all along, while Croatia was viewed as a team that might make it out of group play, but not likely to go any further. France is considered a strong favorite for Sunday’s championship game, which is a rematch of their 1998 World Cup semifinal game.
France has been on a mission since losing the Euro 2016 final on its home soil to Portugal. France’s speed, particularly Paul Pogba in the midfield and Kilian Mbappe up front, has proved to be unsettling for opposing defenses, but Mbappe has not scored since the Argentina game. Les Bleus have instead had to rely on winning goals coming from defenders pushing forward during set pieces in the last two games. The French have won regardless of winning the possession battle because their defense has been indomitable and has shut downs attacks before shots can even be taken. In the semis, Belgium controlled the ball 64% of the time, made nearly twice as many passes as France with better accuracy. Yet, the French took twice as many shots with more on goal because their defense closed down attacks quickly and efficiently. Except for the outlier game against Argentina, the French defense has given up only one goal in the tournament.
Croatia’s journey to the Cup final has been quixotic. Their national federation has been plagued by scandal and corruption. The team’s coach was fired before their last qualifier and they had to beat Greece in a playoff to even qualify for the World Cup. They got placed in a group with 2014 second-place finisher Argentina, the always tough Nigerian team, and the rising Icelandic squad. Getting out of the group was no sure thing, but Croatia crushed the group stage, winning all three games while scoring seven goals and only giving up one. The knockout rounds have been a different story, with all three games requiring extra periods, two of them going to penalty kicks. Croatia faced adversity in each one, giving up the first goal in each knockout game. In fact, they gave up very early goals to Denmark in the round of 16 game (and missed a late spot kick) and England in the semis, as well as very late equalizer to Russia in the quarterfinals. Every time though, the Croatians showed their mettle and persevered.
France is a huge favorite in the championship game and it is easy to understand why. They possess greater speed, play great defense, have a strong midfield, and have a lot of experience on the big stage. They have beaten two teams ranked in the top five of the world rankings in the knockout rounds and have not given up a goal in their last two games. Croatia, on the other hand, has just barely survived at each phase of the knockout round against lesser competition than the French have faced. However, they have one of the best shot creators in the world in talisman Luka Modric and an attack that can come down the middle or through either wing. Eight different players have scored goals for Croatia. France may be the favorite, but they have not faced the adversity that Croatia has faced to get here. Croatia has a resilience that no other team, including the French, has. I am picking the upset here. Croatia has found a way to win every game they’ve played in this tournament so far and I think they do so one last time on Sunday.