Youthful, energetic French vs experienced Croats
MOSCOW — A World Cup of surprises concludes with a final of contrasts. Powered by the dynamism of Kylian Mbappe, France has youthful exuberance in a side packed with some of soccer’s highest-value talent. It also has pedigree — winners in 1998 and finalists in 2006.
Croatia has a veteran roster that has been stretched to the limit but continues to win in Russia. The Croats never give in, prevailing in a shootout against Denmark, again on penalties against Russia — after being stung by a late equalizer — and then recovering from conceding early against England.
Just don’t suggest Croatia will be weary in Sunday’s final when it returns to the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.
Croatia’s star midfielder Luka Modric said “we will see who will be tired” was the team ethos going into Wednesday’s semifinal, feeling Croatia had been under-estimated by the English.
Modric, along with Mario Mandzukic, are the 32-year-olds who have propelled Croatia to its first major soccer final. In the previous four World Cups: Croatia failed to qualify in 2010 and was ousted in the group stage the other three occasions.
Before then, in its World Cup debut in 1998, Croatia did reach the semifinals, where it lost to France.
When Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic visited the team hotel in Moscow on Wednesday that 1998 game was on his mind — even before beating England.
“We might have the chance for the revenge in the finals with the French,” Plenkovic said.
Now they get it.
Croatia advanced to its first World Cup final with a 2-1 extra-time win over England on Wednesday night. France beat Belgium 1-0 a night earlier.
“We have a good opportunity to give them something back for 20 years ago when they reached the final,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “Maybe it’s our time to revenge something but it’s a tough game and it will be difficult.”
A country of 65 million, France has stars like 19-year-old sensation Mbappe, midfielder Paul Pogba and striker Antoine Griezmann.
Croatia is the fourth-smallest country of the 32 World Cup teams with just over 4 million people. It has a chance to be the least-populous nation to win since Uruguay took the title in 1950, when it was a nation of just over 2 million.
World Cup kickoff: A look at what’s ahead in the World Cup
Here’s a look at what’s coming up at the World Cup, which is down to its last match: the final tonight in Moscow between France and Croatia:
Elation and exhaustion
The Croats are headed to their first World Cup final ever, if they can just stay on their feet for a few more days. Croatia’s 2-1 win over England in extra time Wednesday night in Moscow made it the first team ever to go extra time in three straight World Cup matches. Factor in injury time and successive shootout wins over Denmark and Russia, and Croatia has just played the equivalent of 4½ matches in 11 days.
They had a little less than four days to rest up for the final against France, which has finished all of its games in regulation and has an extra day to prepare, having beaten Belgium on Tuesday. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic refuses to use his team’s weariness as an excuse, but just as it was against England, the condition of the players is bound to be a central question in the biggest game Croatia has ever played.
As if the Croats didn’t have enough challenges, now they have to worry about playing again in front of an openly hostile crowd in the 81,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium. Or at least one of them does. Dalic’s insistence after the England match that “the whole of the stadium chanted ‘Croatia, Croatia'” was belied by the fact that a huge chunk of the Russians in the building loudly jeered fullback Domagoj Vida almost every time he touched the ball.
Vida and a team official, both of whom used to play for Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev, appeared in a pro-Ukraine video posted shortly after Croatia knocked Russia out of the tournament. FIFA let Vida off with a warning , but the Russian fans weren’t so forgiving. Given that booing him is now a thing in Moscow, he can expect another rough reception come Sunday. (AP)