Road to Final
Jul 15, 2018-
France had a helping hand from the video assistant referee (VAR) in their World Cup opener and a dash of good fortune when Paul Pogba’s effort deflected off Australia’s Aziz Behich and into the net to seal a 2-1 win. A low-key 1-0 victory against Peru put them in a prime position to qualify and a 0-0 draw against Denmark ensured they topped their group.
A 4-3 win against Lionel Messi’s Argentina was one of the standout matches of the tournament. Goals from Angel Di Maria and Gabriel Mercado cancelled out an early Antoine Griezmann penalty before Benjamin Pavard struck a wonderful equaliser and teenager Kylian Mbappe scored twice. A late Sergio Aguero goal was not enough to save Argentina.
France had far too much quality for a Uruguay side missing in-form forward Edinson Cavani, winning 2-0. Defender Raphael Varane headed France ahead towards the end of the first half and Griezmann scored thanks to a terrible error by goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
France knew they had a tough job on their hands to contain a Belgium side boasting Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku but for the second consecutive match they kept a clean sheet. Samuel Umtiti scored the winner in the second half from Griezmann’s corner to take the team through to their third World Cup final as 1-0 winners.
Croatia were one of only three teams in Russia to win all three of their group matches, beating Nigeria 2-0 in their opener and Iceland 2-1 in their final game. But their standout performance came in their second match, when they swept aside two-time winners Argentina 3-0 to make a huge statement of intent.
Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was the hero, saving three penalties in the shootout as Croatia squeezed past Denmark. Earlier, they had conceded a goal in the opening minute but hit back quickly to equalise through Mario Mandzukic. Luka Modric missed a penalty shortly before the end of extra-time but Croatia survived.
Croatia looked like they would have too much quality for a solid but limited Russia side but were again taken to extra-time and penalties. Goals from Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida cancelled out a Denis Cheryshev opener but Croatia watched in agony as Mario Fernandes snatched a late equaliser. Ivan Rakitic struck the decisive penalty to send his side through to the semi-finals.
Croatia were again forced to dig deep against England. Zlatko Dalic’s side looked in deep trouble after conceding a early goal in Moscow but regrouped to equalise midway through the second half. Despite dominating the second period they were unable to force a winner until deep into extra-time, when Mandzukic struck to break English hearts and win the match 2-1.
Luka Modric v N’golo Kante
While the fluid nature of the modern game ensures there are rarely exclusive head-to-head battles in the midfield, there is little doubt the performances of Modric and Kante will be key to the destination of the World Cup. Modric, technically gifted and rich in big match experience after winning four Champions League titles in five seasons at Real Madrid, is the beating heart of the Croatia team and can be elusive as he prompts, probes and switches the line of attack. Apparently indefatigable, Modric plays a full role in the defensive effort and has the ability to suddenly pull a defence-splitting pass out of the bag at a key moment. When Kante plays well, France play well is a saying with much currency largely because of the holding midfielder’s ability to snuff out danger in the space in front of the back four. His distribution skills also help in the rapid transition from defence to attack that make France such a threat on the break, and he sometimes has an eye for goal himself, often popping up with a raking shot from the edge of the box.
Kylian Mbappe v Dejan Lovren
Teenager Mbappe is already established as one of the players of the tournament with his raw pace causing huge problems for opposing defences from the start of France’s campaign. His two goals against Argentina in the round of 16 illustrated that he has a sublime touch to go with his blinding speed and although he has not found the net since, no defender is going to enjoy an evening trying to contain him. Lovren and Domagoj Vida have formed a rock-solid central defensive partnership for Croatia during the run to the final, encapsulating the backs-to-the-wall attitude of their resilient side. They were exposed early in the semi-final by the pace of Raheem Sterling, however, and in Mbappe they face a player with a considerably better record of delivering the final product than the England forward.
Ivan Perisic v Benjamin Pavard
Perisic was Man of the Match in the semi-final against England after scoring Croatia’s equaliser and then providing the assist with a looping header for Mario Mandzukic’s winner. A player who thrives on confidence, the Inter Milan wingback tormented England’s Kyle Walker in the second half after he had been given licence to push forward down the left flank. Pavard came into the French side at the start of the tournament as a replacement for the injured Djibril Sidibe and has played well enough to maintain his position even though the incumbent right back has regained fitness. His magnificent half-volleyed strike in the last 16 match against Argentina was his most high-profile contribution to the run to the final but more important, perhaps, was his part in keeping the likes of Belgium’s Eden Hazard quiet.
Published: 15-07-2018 07:27