The most important day of the quadrennial soccer calendar is upon us. At first glance, this Sunday’s FIFA World Cup final between Croatia and France looks like a David vs. Goliath matchup. But Croatia are a very good team, capable of going toe-to-toe with the French.
Croatia is the second-smallest country ever to appear in a World Cup final with a population of just over four million (only Uruguay had fewer in 1930 and 1950). Their magnificent run has proven that a nation’s soccer prowess is more about its sporting culture than its size.
Led by the talented tandem of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, Croatia will be a tough opponent for France because they excel at playing patient soccer. The Croats do not panic when they fall behind, which they have done in all three of their knockout stage matches before coming back to win.
England were dominant against Croatia in the first half of the semifinal. Instead of making a reactive tactical adjustment when trailing, Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić stuck to his game plan, and Croatia slowly but surely started pinning the English further back.
As the game went on, England grew tired and gradually dropped deeper until Croatia were enjoying the vast majority of the possession and the scoring chances. However, France are different from the teams Croatia have beaten in a few key ways.
France are every bit as patient as Croatia, and play a similar brand of soccer that is highly effective if not always aesthetically pleasing. The French rely less on their fullbacks joining attacks than most teams do. Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard can stay back to cover the threat of Croatia’s Ante Rebić and Ivan Perišić down the flanks, as they did against Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard in the semifinal.
Hernandez and Pavard are able to be selective about when to get forward because Kylian Mbappé, Blaise Matuidi and Antoine Griezmann give the French offense the width it needs. Comparable to how Croatia use Mario Mandžukić, France deploys physical target forward Olivier Giroud to free up space for their speedsters. Giroud and Mandžukić each work incredibly hard off the ball for their respective teams in order to allow the creative players behind them room to operate.
Despite the fact that World Cup finals feature some of the best players on the planet, they tend to be quite dull to watch. The last two finals were won with a lone goal deep into extra time. Given that both France and Croatia have a penchant for winning in a methodical fashion, this match does not seem like it will break that trend. They will each sit back, make a lot of passes and try to dictate the tempo.
As I’ve written before, Croatia’s greatest strength is its midfield. No one they have faced so far has been able to figure out how to stop them in that area of the pitch. They win by wearing down the other team and turning the pressure up late — nine of their 12 goals have been scored in the second half or extra time — and that strategy works because Modrić and Rakitić are so good at controlling a game.
But unlike the rest of Croatia’s opponents, France’s equally-prolific pairing of Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté can match up with them in the midfield. If they are able to contain Modrić and Rakitić, France will grind out a win and the streets of Paris will party like it’s 1998.
Way-Too-Specific Prediction: Corentin Tolisso comes off the bench in extra time to score the winning goal in the 115th minute after Dejan Lovren slips to allow him in on goal. France, 1-0.