France seeks second Cup title vs. underdog Croatia

France and Croatia meet Sunday in Moscow for the final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a tournament that has carried echoes of the 1998 competition right up to its final game.

France is seeking its second World Cup and first since hoisting it on home soil in 1998. Current France manager Didier Deschamps was a central force in the ‘98 squad as a defensive midfielder, and his mentality has driven this current version of Les Bleus to the final again, says midfielder Blaise Matuidi.

“He always has this strictness and this way of guiding which make him different,” Matuidi said. “Honestly, we are very happy to have this kind of coach. He has had a lot of good results and has not been boring. Whatever he does, it works. We have to take our hats off to him.”

As for Croatia, the nation of approximately four million people has the chance to become the smallest country to win the World Cup since Uruguay’s upset of Brazil in 1950. Croatia’s current run bests its previous top performance, one that also came in the 1998 tournament. It finished third after giving eventual champions France a stiff test in a semifinal that finished 2-1 in favor of the hosts at Stade de France.

“We will have some extra motivation because of that, for sure,” said Croatia midfielder Ivan Perisic. “But this is a totally different story. They are favorites, but we will do our best to surprise them.”

If anything, Croatia is battle tested. After prevailing on penalties in the round of 16 against Denmark and in the quarterfinals against hosts Russia, Perisic equalized and Mario Mandzukic scored the winner in a 2-1, extra-time victory over England in Wednesday’s semifinal.

After scoring first in its three group-stage wins, Croatia has conceded the first goal in all three of its knockout-phase matches. Because of extra time, they’ve played 90 minutes more than France over that stretch, the equivalent of a full match.

“Again there was drama, it couldn’t have been otherwise,” Inter Milan winger Perisic said after the victory against England. “Three times now we’ve been a goal down and have come back, and that really says a lot about our team spirit. And that is a real feature of this generation of players. We have one more game left, and we have never been more motivated.”

Perisic himself may be a question for the final after reports he was treated in the hospital for a thigh injury following the England win. Juventus’ Mandzukic also appears to have been dealing with a leg injury, but midfield talisman and captain Luka Modric has looked strong throughout.

Meanwhile, France has had a relatively straightforward, if not exactly easy path to the final. After a 4-3 win over Argentina and 2-0 victory against Uruguay in its first two knockout matches, Samuel Umtiti’s header off a corner shortly after halftime was all France needed in a 1-0 semifinal win over Belgium.

France has scored seven of its 10 goals since knockout play began, and is the only team to preserve multiple shutouts in the knockout phase.

That continued improvement defensively has helped overcome a scoreless performance from forward Olivier Giroud. Forward Kylian Mbappe and midfielder Antoine Griezmann have scored three goals each, with two of Griezmann’s coming from the penalty spot.

“We know what to expect,” said Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann. “We really want it. I can’t wait. I just want to lift the trophy regardless of whether I score or not. I want to lift it and that’s what matters most for me.”

–Field Level Media

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