The World Cup has reached its zenith and so, as France and Croatia prepare to clash for an embroidered star, we make our big-game predictions.
A stellar line-up worthy of any final – providing you haven’t checked out their pre-tournament prophecies – will put necks on the line as Alex Rea, Chris Bailey, Matt Jones and Brendon Netto all give you their thoughts ahead of Sunday’s showpiece.
OUTSIDE OF MBAPPE AND MODRIC, WHO ARE THE PLAYERS TO WATCH?
AR – Really ‘hipster’ with this choice considering the vast array of attacking talent on display but Sime Vrsaljko’s width and delivery was absolutely essentially against England and against an erratic and errant Lucas Hernandez, fancy the right-fullback to have a say in the final.
CB – Whether the arrogant, or at least supremely confident, Dejan Lovren will have any luck in shackling France’s artillery when he was mightily lucky to avoid the referee’s notebook against England. You’d expect a shutdown performance from ‘one of the best defenders in the world’.
N’Golo Kante, on the other hand, has been playing exactly to type as the globe’s best defensive midfielder. If he can get to grips with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic it’s surely good night Croatia, thanks for coming.
MJ – Danijel Subasic has been a totem of strength for Croatia and if the Vatreni are to be victorious it could be via penalties. The Monaco man has saved four already and will be pivotal again should a predicted tight and tense encounter ensue.
BN – Antoine Griezmann has been rather quietly plugging away. He has a tendency to drift out of games but has made some telling contributions to France’s campaign. Paul Pogba has dictated his side’s play and will have a big role to play again. Meanwhile, Croatian winger Ivan Perisic works hard and has a knack for scoring important goals.
WHO CAN MAKE AN IMPACT FROM THE BENCH?
AR – The battle for middle ground will form the route to victory for both France and Croatia but Dalic perhaps has better options to freshen up the engine room with Mateo Kovacic a fine player. He hasn’t featured a lot in Russia but you would expect Croatia to tire at some point and he can improve his team’s possession play if they do drop off. The 24-year-old needs to make an impact to justify his billing as the next great midfield talent.
CB – Milan Badelj can count himself incredibly unlucky for playing just a further 13 combined minutes since his goal-scoring performance in victory over Iceland during the group stages. But Croatia’s legs are undoubtedly wearied by now and it’s easy to envisage a scenario where the tough-tackling Fiorentina midfielders comes on to blunt France’s physicality.
Didier Deschamps has had little need to resort to the bench and those who have made it onto the pitch have had minimal impact, including Ousmane Dembele. Thomas Lemar did not pull up any trees in his only start against Denmark – but perhaps it’s time to give the new Atletico Madrid man a shot at tired legs towards the end.
MJ – Though he has only sparingly dipped into his deep reserves as yet during the tournament, there’s a wealth of talent at Deschamps’ disposal should things not be going to plan. Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin have both enjoyed stellar seasons domestically – unlike Ousmane Dembele at Barcelona – but if his side are in need of a spark, it will be the livewire winger he calls upon to change the tempo.
BN – Andrej Kramaric will be Zlatko Dalic’s go-to man to mix things up in attack should Croatia fall behind. Nabil Fekir has looked lively during his limited time on the pitch and could make a difference if called upon. More likely perhaps is Steven Nzonzi’s appearance off the bench as France looked to hold on to a lead.
WILL FATIGUE BE A DETERMINING FACTOR?
AR – If there are any wobbly legs out there for Croatia then France certainly have the pace and power to deck them. However, they showed no effects from consecutive extra-time fixtures against England when that went deep and the belief of coming from behind against Denmark in the last-16 and in the semi-final proves they won’t buckle if the same happens in Moscow.
CB – If this one goes to extra-time, perhaps – especially as Croatia are hardly a team full of speed demons. But their reserves appeared almost bottomless when pummelling England into submission, and such a passionate and professional group of players will need no pick-me-up for a World Cup final they wouldn’t have dared even dream about prior to the tournament.
MJ – If you can’t get up for the World Cup final, there’s something seriously wrong with you. Experts predicted that Croatia would crumble amid their exhausting knockout stage exertions against England. Yet here they are. Yes, it is another game for already weary legs. But the method of their route here will have had a galvanising effect on the whole squad.
BN – Croatia won’t be flat on their backsides if this goes to extra-time and adrenaline will no doubt carry them a long way. There’s also the mental aspect to consider as they’s have confidence in going the distance again. However, they’re only human and lapses in concentration will see gaps appear. France are likely to pick them off then with surgical precision.
CAN FRANCE HANDLE THE PRESSURE?
AR – They are the favourites and struggled with that tag in the Euro 2016 final but they will have been emboldened by the experience of that painful defeat to Portugal. Deschamps’ side have been remarkably efficient throughout and that’s thanks in large part to the collective effort and enterprise rather than the reliance on any on star. Shared responsibility should see them not just deal with the pressure but embrace it also.
CB – There’s been an air of serenity about this French squad ever since they stepped off the plane in Russia. Apart from a few apparent grumblings over Deschamps’ stifling tactics, the players have fallen into line and clearly realised that the 1998 World Cup winner’s methods have them on the brink of a second star.
Two individuals may be worrying about their own form, though. Olivier Giroud has still not hit the target, let along score, while Benjamin Pavard had a torrid time against Eden Hazard. Ivan Perisic will have taken note.
MJ – For all the talk of France being favourites, they have been here before. In fact the memory of Euro 2016 is all too real for Deschamps and Co, who were heavily fancied on home soil two summers ago. Against a weaker side, however, they wilted. And there are plenty of similarities between Portugal and Croatia – both industrious teams with a smattering of stars. We are about to see just how mentally stronger France are.
BN – Many of the current group of players were part of the final defeat at Euro 2016. That would’ve been a huge learning experience for them. They have bee unfazed throughout their World Cup run and look like they have the chops to go all the way.
WHAT WILL THE SCORE BE?
AR – France are fresher, have already beaten some of the biggest nations in the tournament and have found a way to win in each game. Fancy them to do the same in the final. 1-0
CB – It’s foolish to count out Croatia but while they’ve scrapped for their lives all the way, France have only needed to get out of second gear offensively when going briefly behind against Argentina. France never do more than what is required and this is another one that shouldn’t tax them heavily. 1-0
MJ – France undoubtedly have the quality, but Croatia are no minnows – despite being a fledgling nation. They will fight and scrap – and also have Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric among a stellar cast of stars. France should win but if they are anything other than their best, they are in trouble. 2-1
BN – Croatia will be worthy adversaries but France have the strength, guile and temperament to succeed on this stage. 2-0
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp backed up his central defender Dejan Lovren who is about to play in the World Cup final against France.
The Reds centre-back commented after Croatia’s win over England in midweek when he said “Without being arrogant I think I have (been proved to be one of the best defenders in the world). Definitely” were greeted with disbelief in some quarters and even Klopp allowed himself a chuckle.
“It would be better if somebody else would say that and not Dejan – but actually he’s right,” said the German.
“People don’t think about that but if you go into detail it’s not a big surprise Croatia are where they are.
“They don’t have world class full-backs, but in the end they don’t concede.
“They are offensive in the midfield with (Ivan) Rakitic, (Marcelo) Brozovic, (Luka) Modric, so somebody needs to fix all that. Dejan is a big part of that.
“He was for us in the Champions League final, three years ago he was in the Europa League final, yes he didn’t win that.
“In the Champions League final, I didn’t see two better centre halves than him – only more ruthless. That’s the thing.
“For me it’s no surprise. He played a really good World Cup, but to do it consistently is more important.
“We will work together for a long time, so I will have the opportunity to help him. Next time I will say it (he is one of the world’s best defenders)!”
A funereal feel to the World Cup third-place play-off sucked even more life out of deflated fans and players as Belgium strolled to a 2-0 win over England in Saint Petersburg.
The glorified friendly was settled by Thomas Meunier’s fourth-minute tap in and a third goal of the tournament for Eden Hazard as Belgium secured a second victory over England in Russia following their 1-0 success in the group stages.
Here, we pick through the bones of both carcasses to examine the things learned.
LIONS LACK BITE
It was a concern before the tournament and escalated as England advanced through the rounds but the Three Lions lack serious bite.
Granted, it’s harsh to discern that analysis solely from this fixture given the heavy legs and hearts, but it’s been an issue throughout and permeated the play-off so it warrants comment.
The set-piece success has been celebrated after nine goals were scored in Russia from deadball situations, but it’s masked genuine deficiencies from open play.
Belgium and Croatia are easily the best sides England have faced at this tournament, yet in large parts, the off-ball movement was too static, passing options have been easily plugged while the possession pointless and without plan or penetration.
There’s a distinct difference between patient and methodical build-up play and lethargically recycling the ball between your centre-halves on the halfway line with nobody able to offer an easy ball.
Ultimately, we saw a huge chasm of quality between Belgium and England, none more so than in midfield were Kevin De Bruyne was given so much space and time he could practically pause, sketch out his plans of attack, show it to the England players and then proceed to bring his creation to life.
And credit to Belgium because their counter-attacking was cut-throat, Hazard’s goal a fine example of their ability on the break, but they didn’t require much plotting as England just presented space and their neck.
When Gareth Southgate’s side went forward, they were so slow in the final third and their opponents just bolted into blocks and didn’t even need to stop space before capitilising on errant passing.
England and Southgate do deserve goodwill from unexpectedly reaching the semi-final but we would be doing them a disservice not to want and expect more as well.
SCRAP THE PLAY-OFF
It won’t happen, but it should.
The third-place play-off is an utterly futile fixture and it was played in a manner which represented its lack of value as both teams went through the motions.
Of course, that is purely in footballing terms because, financially, FIFA will milk the World Cup cow until it is bone dry with ticket sales, sponsorship, adverts and TV revenue all being guzzled up through another fixture on the schedule.
But for the supporters and players alike it is completely meaningless and, if anything, has worked to siphon some of the pride from England’s tournament success.
It was a stinker of a game and understandably so after both sets of players slumped to the turf after their respective semi-final defeats.
Memorably unmemorable is perhaps the only way to describe the third-place play-off, one that shouldn’t even exist and hopefully won’t when the tournament expands to 48 teams in 2026.
LUKAKU MISSED HIS GOLDEN CHANCE
Collectively the play-off has little significance but on an individual level it does at least present those in the Golden Boot race another route to top spot.
Romelu Lukaku was two goals behind leading man Harry Kane and the Belgium frontman had his fair share of opportunities to close the gap.
On two occasions De Bruyne made use of the space and time afforded to him by threading two gorgeous through balls into the striker’s path, once in the first half and again the second, but typically, both times his first touch was dire.
Never has the beauty and beast analogy been more apt than in the link-up of De Bruyne and Lukaku but the Manchester United man will rue not adding to his tally.
And his heavy first touch will likely mean Kane emerges as one of the most underwhelming Golden Boot winners in recent years.
Only Kylian Mbappe can catch him and the France teenager requires a hat-trick in the World Cup final to draw level, so we’re looking at the England captain capturing the coveted personal prize with three penalties, one deflected effort he knew nothing about and two close-range strikes.
The easiest six goals he’ll ever score make for an anti-climatic finish.