World Cup Final: France we expected, but Croatia? The Blazers won't go away.
After an unpredictable tournament packed with memorable moments, France and Croatia will contest the 21st World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday afternoon. Both sides have worked hard and battled through difficult moments to get here, but both know their final opponent pose various threats; so they'll be equally bullish about their chances of bringing home the ultimate prize.
France received some early criticism for their unconvincing displays during the group stages, despite topping Group C fairly comfortably. The only match they have failed to win was against runners-up Denmark, where Didier Deschamps made six alterations to his starting eleven. They beat Argentina in a seven-goal thriller to kick off the knockout rounds in style, before a hard-fought victory against Uruguay. In the semi-final, they beat neighbours Belgium; sealing their passage into their third World Cup final.
In five previous meetings between the pair, France are unbeaten. Their most recent fixture was a friendly in March 2011, which ended in a goalless draw. Croatia will be hoping that it's sixth time lucky.
The Blazers have embraced the role of underdogs well, having come through a tricky Group D as group winners before proving themselves the comeback kings in the knockout rounds. In each of their three victories over Denmark, Russia and England, they have come from behind to win, meaning they're the first side to progress to the final by doing so. Two on penalties and another after extra-time, means they've played more minutes since July 1 than anyone else. They will hope it stands them in good stead, rather than hindering their chances of success.
There are no fresh injury concerns for Les Bleus to worry about, though Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi was initially a doubt due to the concussion he suffered against Belgium after a clash with Eden Hazard.
He was substituted, minutes before the full-time whistle, though the 31-year-old is expected to start again this weekend. If he does not, Bayern's Corentin Tolisso could deputise in his place - as he did against Uruguay when Matuidi was suspended. If it's not broken, why try to fix it? I expect Deschamps to continue with his 4-2-3-1 formation and select an unchanged side from the one who beat Belgium on Tuesday.
Matuidi's inclusion on the flank was ridiculed by many on social media earlier in the tournament, but he has impressed as an energetic workhorse and adds another attacking dimension for opponents to worry about. The dependable N'Golo Kanté has completed 14 tackles and made 19 interceptions, alongside a thriving Paul Pogba who continues to excel in Deschamps' current set-up.
Griezmann excelled during Euro 2016 but has struggled to match such high expectations in Russia. He has three goals and two assists to his name thus far, though only one from open play - which was a goalkeeping mistake by Fernando Muslera in the quarter-finals. If the Atletico Madrid striker has struggled, then Giroud certainly has too. Although there is more to his game than just goals, he has failed to hit the target with any of his 13 shots registered at this tournament and only has one goal (5-2 v Switzerland, 2014) in 11 World Cup appearances to date.
On the injury front, Zlatko Dalic will be monitoring his players and their fitness before deciding whether they have fully recovered from a difficult run of fixtures in quick succession. Ivan Perisic (thigh) is said to be a doubt, though the Inter forward will be determined to start in the biggest game of his career to date.
Perisic, 29, was Croatia's main attacking threat against England in midweek and has now been involved in 10 goals (four goals, six assists) at major tournaments, a joint national record alongside 1998 top-scorer Davor Suker. Atletico fullback Sime Vrsaljko and first-choice goalkeeper Danijel Subasic both came through the England win unscathed despite having previous knocks, while Marcelo Brozovic's semi-final display is likely to see him retain his place in midfield alongside the excellent duo of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric.
Modric has rightly earned praise worldwide for his performances, leading by example as the captain that he is. He has created 16 chances at this World Cup, which is twice as many as any of his teammates (Rakitic, eight). Along with Mbappé, the Real Madrid man is high on the Golden Ball shortlist. After an impassioned post-match interview on Wednesday, he'll be even hungrier to silence critics one final time this weekend before etching his name into the history books.
The last two first-time finalists have both gone on to win the trophy - France in 1998 and Spain in 2010 - though the odds will be stacked against Croatia once more when they take on their toughest test to date. Will history repeat itself?
France 3-1 Croatia
Croatia, despite all their admirable efforts, can consider themselves fortunate to be here. Most of the pre-tournament favourites were knocked out by other sides before they had to face them, while they won two penalty shootouts along the way. Say what you want about determination, France are a step up in quality.
They were one of those favourites and have justified their stay. Knocking out Argentina, dark horses Uruguay as well as a star-studded Belgium side, it has not been straight-forward for Les Bleus, but they wouldn't have wanted it that way. The hurt of two years ago, extra-time defeat in the Euro final by Portugal at the Stade de France, is sure to have added extra fuel to their fire. Kylian Mbappé, who watched alongside under-19 national teammates at the time, will again play a pivotal role in determining their success here. It's showtime.