It all comes down to this.
Football’s biggest match is upon us, France and Croatia doing battle in the World Cup final as Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium becomes the sport’s most coveted colosseum.
After 62 matches, only two competitors remain – having swashbuckled their way to the summit, dispatching their rivals one by one to earn their chance to challenge for the ultimate prize.
The French have risen amid a wave of scarcely-believable giant killings, justifying the pre-tournament hype to dominate a tricky group featuring the Socceroos before leaving Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium in their wake to forge a stunning path to this final.
Now the only thing standing in their way of a second World Cup triumph (after lifting the trophy in 1998) is a Croatian outfit who have beaten the odds, and a string of trying tests to emerge with the greatest result in their history.
A flawless group stage – headlined by a 3-0 demolition of Lionel Messi’s Argentina – was followed by back-to-back extra-time victories over Denmark, Russia and, most recently England, and they’re now in unchartered territory. Since unifying as a modern nation in 1991, the small Balkan nation – with a meagre population of just 4.1 million – have represented five times at football’s top tournament. On debut in 1998, their ‘golden generation’ led by golden boot winner Davor Suker, achieved at their greatest outcome until now, reaching the final four before having their dream ended by… France.
Vengeance is on offer in this decider, but coach Zlatko Dalic insists revenge isn’t the motivator for his team.
“In 1998 I was in France for the first three games as a supporter. Everyone in Croatia remembers that game when Thuram scored and we lost 2-1. This has been the topic of discussion for the past 20 years,” Dalic said after the semi-final win.
“I remember when we celebrated Suker’s goal but as soon as we sat back down it was level.
“Both teams have shown their qualities, we do not seek revenge, this is football, this is sport, but what we have to do is focus on preparing to play our best game of the tournament in the final.”
They’ll need to be at their best to defeat this star-studded French side.
In a tournament of drama, they’ve proven immune to the sensational. Under Didier Deschamps, the French appear to have found a balance – with quality across the park and a regimented system driving their run to the final.
In attack, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann have been sublime, while midfield pairing N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba have earned wide ranging plaudits in the centre of the park. At the back, skipper and keeper Hugo Lloris has been excellent while centre-back pairing Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane have complemented their defensive solidity with key goals for their country.
Full backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard have been revelations despite question marks over their experience and quality leading into this tournament.
It’s truly been a team performance and one which has led to clear favouritism in this final. But Croatia have shown they’re not to be underestimated.
In all three of their knockout matches they’ve conceded first, and rallied to emerge victorious. Many suggested exhaustion would prove their downfall in the semi-final against England, but they seemed to only get stronger as the minutes ticked by.
Three consecutive added time knockout wins are a far from perfect lead-in, but with their backs to the wall, this Croatian side have risen time and time again.-AFP