There’s only one game left – and it’s about to change everything…
France 4-2 Croatia
Les Bleus came into this with a slightly different 4-4-1-1 formation that could play like a 4-2-3-1 if they needed to clog up the middle a little more. Diminutive defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté was key to France’s attack, stopping the Croatian attack in front of the back four, allowing box-to-box midfielder Paul Pogba to get forward in a more advanced role. Target man Olivier Giroud has not score in this tournament, but his holding up the ball in the box for talisman Antoine Greizmann to trail in through the center and Killian Mbappe and Blaise Matuidi to attack from the flanks was invaluable.
They key for Croatia was going to be left fullback Ivan Strinic in their 4-3-3 formation and his ability to shut down the speedy French wonderkid Mbappe. Holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic’s inclusion in the lineup meant that sideline-to-sideline midfielder Ivan Rakitic and midfield maestro Luka Modric could play at lot more advanced through the center. Mario Mandzukic has been one of the best target men in this tournament, finding the energy late in games to get on the end of service and using his all-around skill and smarts to bring Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic into the attack from the flanks, switching sides frequently.
The key to this game was going to be in the midfield. Croatia wanted to keep the ball away from France and make them run on defense, whereas France wanted to play a little more direct through the center, but were getting pinned back in their own end early, even in possession because Croatia were pressing France high. What else is new; a set piece leads to the opening score. Greizmann free kick into the box that Mandzukic gets on the end of for an own goal in the 18th minute. But to their credit, there was no panic on Croatia’s game, pressing high, reasserting possession, and showing lots of energy and quick combination play through the center. It paid off in the 29th minute on a great buildup on a set piece, finding Perisic just outside the box for a bullet into the lower right corner.
Perisic then slaps at the ball for a France penalty; Greizmann converts in the 39th minute. Still no panic from Croatia, who were getting forward on the left, then getting the ball in combination into the box, and keeping France 6’s and 7’s defending set pieces. Other than defending set pieces, Croatia has played their game and played well. If the French were going to give up as much possession to as organized and confident an attacking team as Croatia, they needed to be a lot more organized in the back than they were, but they gave up way too many good chances to Croatia finding space to take shots in the final third.
Incredible work rate and heart from Mandzukic, who along with Rakitic and Perisic made runs in space through the heart of the French defense and got on the end of service for chances on goal. The one time Mbappe got loose on the right side France made a great combination attack, getting the ball in the box for Pogba to finish a laser in the 59th minute (until then Strinic was actually doing a good job on Mbappe). France’s quality finally showed out in the 65th minute when Croatia opened up things, allowing France to get the ball into open spaces in the attacking end; left winger Mario Fernandez found Mbappe running through the center for another laser shot outside the box.
France’s Hugo Lloris lost the Golden Glove award in the 69th minute when he botched a goal kick and let Mandzukic plant one in the goal behind him. Mandzukic and Giroud (even though he never scored) were workhorses for their respective sides, doing all the dirty work it takes to win. France finally settled down and organized defensively, killing the game off, becoming a roadblock and making Croatia bring the game to them. Croatia was a great come-from-behind team this entire tournament, but coming back from three goals down was a bridge too far, even with a brain fart by Lloris.
I never thought I saw France at their best, but they didn’t need to be, not in this incarnation of the World Cup. We all thought that France’s best was to come four years from now in Qatar; they had other ideas. That’s the best thing about youth, they don’t know they are supposed to lose, they think they can win right now – and they did. France, the second youngest team in Russia, are the world champions. MADD PROPS to Croatia, who did more than anyone thought they could, and quite frankly played better than anybody in this tournament.