Favoured France takes on resilient Croatia in World Cup final
Mbappe charging towards coronation against Modric's steely midfield
Twenty years after France and Croatia had their most successful World Cup performances, the two countries' paths will meet on soccer's biggest stage.
The favoured French and the resilient Croatians square off in the World Cup final on Sunday at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium following an unpredictable four-and-a-half weeks in Russia that saw giants fall, stars fade and an unprecedented number of own goals — 11 at the tournament so far.
France won its lone World Cup as hosts in 1998, the same tournament that saw Croatia finish third in its first-ever tournament as an independent country. There is a score to settle from that tournament though, as the French dispatched Croatia 2-1 in the semifinals that year.
A win Sunday would provide a salve to French fans' wounds from the 2006 final loss marred by an infamous head-butt — not to mention the mutiny in South Africa four years later — while the red-and-white checkered legion of supporters hope their Vatreni can hoist that coveted trophy for the first time.
Measuring up Mbappe and Modric
France has been on a tear after a tepid end to group-stage play. Les Bleus dispatched Lionel Messi's Argentina and Luis Suarez's Uruguay in short order before keeping Belgium at bay in a 1-0 semifinal win.
Leading the charge are teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe and lethal forward Antoine Griezmann — both of whom have three goals so far in Russia. Les Bleus also owe a tremendous amount of their success so far to a stalwart back line and the timely goalkeeping of Hugo Lloris.
While Mbappe's speed and youthful exuberance have created havoc for opposing defences, Croatia's No. 10 — captain Luka Modric — has coolly controlled matches in Russia with his graceful play in the middle, even when facing elimination.
It's that resolve the 19-year-old Paris St-Germain forward singled out ahead of their showdown.
"Even when you think they're going to lose, or going to crack, they always have the mentality to come back," Mbappe told the Associated Press on Friday. "It's a team that plays with a lot of intensity."
Battle-tested but still standing
Modric and company coasted through the group stage only to encounter some serious pushback in the knockout rounds. The team's last three games all went to extra time, with the first two going all the way to penalties.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic performed admirably under pressure and Ivan Rakitic's calm demeanour sealed shootout wins over Denmark and Russia, and it was a stingy midfield and the left boot of Mario Mandzukic in extra time of the semis that ensured football's highest honour wouldn't be coming home to England.
"When you put the sacred Croatia shirt on you become a different person," Rakitic told AP through a translator. "I'm not trying to say it's a superior feeling that the French have for France, or Russians for Russia.
"The best feeling is to be Croat these days and this is the source of all our strength."
Rakitic has been clutch from the spot, but it's Modric, Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic who lead the team in goals with two each. Nine Croatian players have scored at this year's World Cup, compared to France's five.
Croatia also dealt with off-field issues in Russia. The team expelled former player Ognjen Vukojevic from its World Cup delegation for making a pro-Ukraine video with active player Domagoj Vida; the defender received a warning from FIFA and later apologized.
One Croatia player who will not be at the final, even on the bench, is striker Nikola Kalinic who was sent home from the World Cup after refusing to come on as a substitute in the team's opening game against Nigeria. Coach Zlatko Dalic said it had happened before both in a friendly against Brazil and in training sessions. Kalinic could not be replaced so Croatia continued in the tournament with a 22-man squad.
With files from The Associated Press and Reuters