Back in 1998, Croatia’s golden generation glistened on their tournament bow but were beaten by France 2-1 on their way to lifting a maiden World Cup title.
There were some fabulous players on both sides of the ball in that 1998 last four showdown, and the 2018 vintages also boast some of modern football’s finest.
For France 20 years ago there was Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry. On Sunday, Didier Deschamps – himself the captain in that 1998 triumph – can pick the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
But who would you select if you had to merge the two sides? Here, we pick our combined France XI from the 1998 and current teams.
FRANCE COMBINED XI (4-3-1-2)
GK – HUGO LLORIS (C)
Has had a few shaky moments during the tournament after a less than stellar season with Spurs, flapping at a few crosses, but he has been called upon on several occasions to save France – his stunning reflex save to deny Toby Alderweireld in the semi-final one of several highlights and arguably the save of the tournament.
RB – LILIAN THURAM
Only ever scored two goals in his 142-cap career, but both came in the same game as Croatia finally woke up from their dream debut and crashed out at the semi-final stage, with Thuram’s brace earning Les Bleus passage to the final with a 2-1 paving the way to glory.
Switched to right-back for the tournament and helped form a formidable French backbone in defence that conceded only two goals in seven matches. His exploits earned him the FIFA Bronze Ball, the third best player at the tournament, behind Ronaldo and Davor Suker.
CB – RAPHAEL VARANE
He and Samuel Umtiti can follow Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc into the history books and join the ranks of French football folklore should they emulate the stoic centre-back pairing that provided the bedrock for glory 20 years ago.
Has his detractors but has been really reliable in Russia, leading France in clearances (6.5) and aerials won (4) per game.
CB – MARCEL DESAILLY
A serial winner who lifted two Champions Leagues and two Serie A titles at club level before forming a crucial part of the first French side to lift a World Cup.
Blessed with being an incredible athlete, Desailly combined this with his warrior-like work ethic and attitude – even though he was admonished for being sent off in the final as France triumphed.
LB – BIXENTE LIZARAZU
A marauding left-back who married flair with a fierce competitive streak, he was regarded as one of the best players ever in his position, even if he was essentially ahead of his time.
One of France’s most decorated footballers, adding the European Championship title in 2000, while he won the Champions League and six Bundesliga crowns with Bayern Munich. After retiring in 2006 he continued raking in the honours – he won a European jiu-jitsu title in 2009.
CM – PAUL POGBA
Came into the tournament with plenty to prove having endured a torrid club season with Manchester United, but has been a commanding and creative presence – his eight key passes are joint second for France.
His defensive diligence, meanwhile – nine tackles is fifth while only Varane has won more aerial duels (19) – has seen him shine all round in Deschamps’ defence-first approach.
CM – N’GOLO KANTE
Relentless energy has run opponents ragged at this World Cup – he has covered the third most metres and played 64 and eight minutes less than Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic ahead of him respectively.
Has been the steel to Paul Pogba’s silk in Les Bleus’ midfield and his performance in the final will surely dictate the tone, and outcome, of this pivotal encounter.
CM – BLAISE MATUIDI
Energetic and unselfish outings have underpinned this efficient rather than effervescent French final run. Now 31 and having moved to Juventus having been pushed out the door at PSG, yet has not looked a step off in Russia – often playing out of position too.
He was excellent in an alien left wing forward role in the semi-final dissection of Belgium – his incessant stamina and suffocation of opponents’ possession helping France suck the life out of games.
AM – ZINEDINE ZIDANE
The French phenom is the first name on the teamsheet, though this was far from his tournament, despite the fact the Marseille magician conjured two goals in the final as favourites Brazil were swept away at the Stade de France.
His tournament prior to that had been highlighted by his red card for a stamp on Saudi Arabia’s Fuad Amin in the group stage and he was subdued in both the quarter-final and semi before bursting back to life against Brazil. But we defy you to leave him out of any combined XI.
ST – KYLIAN MBAPPE
Has ushered in what could prove to be a changing of the guard as giants of the game Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi exited early on with some excellent displays.
France have been nearly flawless and even when they were challenged in a brilliant last 16 clash against Messi and Co, Mbappe’s brilliance and four-minute brace helped turned the tide back in Les Bleus’ favour. A Golden Ball contender.
ST – ANTOINE GRIEZMANN
Hasn’t been at his blistering goalscoring best – his three goals have come via two penalties and a fortuitous effort from range against Uruguay that Fernando Muslera won’t ever forget – but he has grown into the tournament.
His off the ball play, meanwhile, has been sublime, as he’s allowed Mbappe to rampage through defences while he roams and links play between attack and midfield.
France and Croatia meet in the World Cup final on Sunday, and it’s been 20 years since the Vatreni’s golden generation glistened on their tournament bow – beaten by Les Bleus 2-1 on their way to lifting a maiden World Cup title.
There were some fabulous players on both sides of the ball in that 1998 last four showdown, and the 2018 vintages also boast some of modern football’s finest.
But who would you pick if you had to merge the two sides? Here, we pick our combined Croatia XI from the 1998 and current teams.
CROATIA COMBINED XI (4-3-1-2)
GK – DANIJEL SUBASIC
He’s not exactly unheard of as he’s played with French giants Monaco since 2012, but he wouldn’t have been on many peoples’ radar for goalkeepers to watch in Russia prior to the tournament.
Yet the 33-year-old has been superb, getting his gloves on just about everything. He’s saved four spot-kicks in two penalty shootouts as all three of Croatia’s knockout ties have gone beyond 90 minutes.
RB – SIME VRSALJKO
Not a big name but another who’s made a big impact for Croatia, getting up and down the right wing to aid in attacks as well as going about his defensive duties diligently.
The Atletico Madrid man’s width and delivery was essential as Croatia gradually climbed into the semi-final against England, and against inexperienced club-mate Lucas Hernandez, the marauding right-back could have a telling say.
CB IGOR STIMAC
Rough strength and a compact defence that only allowed two goals in five matches before the France defeat 20 years ago were hallmarks of Croatia’s triumph – typified by cult Derby County centre-back Stimac.
The muscular Croat was never the quickest, but alongside Slaven Bilic, he helped provide an iron curtain barrier for opposition attackers to try and chip away at.
CB – SLAVEN BILIC
Bilic was brilliant at the back as the Vatreni marched to third place, although his controversial role in the sending off of French counterpart Laurent Blanc blighted his tournament.
Bilic never looked much like a footballer but his brute force and sheer will was absolutely key to Croatia’s run, which came on the back of only gaining independence in 1991.
”Before, we had just come out of the war and we were like soldiers on the pitch, making our country recognised,” said Bilic at the tournament. They certainly managed to achieve that.
LB – ROBERT JARNI
If you’re only going to score one international goal, you’d best make it memorable. And Jarni, who loved to get forward and possessed a thunderous left-foot, certainly achieved that, netting the opening goal as Germany were torn apart 3-0 in the quarter-finals. It was the full-back’s only goal in 81 caps for the Vatreni.
He played in all seven games, having appeared in the 1990 World Cup for Yugoslavia. Retired from international football in 2002, but went on to win two international caps for Croatia at futsal.
CM – IVAN RAKITIC
Came into this tournament expecting to share the creative burden with Real Madrid’s Modric, but the Barcelona pivot has left it largely to his captain to drag Croatia into the final.
His seven key passes is joint second for Croatia but is dwarfed by Modric’s 14, while he is yet to register an assist. He has, however, shown his poise in clutch moments – scoring the winning penalties against both Denmark and Russia.
CM – ZVONIMIR BOBAN
Boban became the spiritual leader of the Croatia team years before their biggest achievement when, on May 13, 1990, during a Yugoslav League match between the Croat-supported Dynamo Zagreb and the Serb-supported Red Star Belgrade, he reportedly kicked a Yugoslav police officer who had raised a truncheon at a Croatian fan.
Boban, unsurprisingly, lost his chance to participate in the 1990 World Cup for a united Yugoslavia, but he became a national hero to the Croats. ‘Zorro’, as he was nicknamed, could also kick a ball around a bit too, a talented and creative yet tenacious player, known for his eye for the final ball especially during his AC Milan days.
CM – IVAN PERISIC
Was spoken of as being one of Croatia’s main weapons in their armory coming into the tournament, and he belatedly got going when it mattered as he stabbed in the equaliser against England.
Had been expected to chiefly carry Croatia’s wide threat but has been put in the shadow by Eintracht Frankfurt flyer Ante Rebic. Now he’s in the groove though he could be a dangerous prospect for France.
AM – LUKA MODRIC (C)
Only 5ft 7in yet he is a monster of a midfielder, his influence rising with each game that passes – no player (who has played six matches) has covered more ground than his 63km.
His goal in the 3-0 thrashing of supposed contenders Argentina was breathtaking, his nerves of steel to convert a penalty in the shootout against Denmark, having earlier missed one to win it in extra-time, brave beyond belief. A diminutive player who could have a big say in this final.
ST – DAVOR SUKER
A silky striker who took his chance to shine as Croatia announced themselves to the world 20 years ago. Scored in every game bar the 1-0 group stage defeat to Argentina – including winners against Japan and, crucially, in the last 16 against Romania and 2-1 victory over the Netherlands in the third-place play-off.
Capped a sublime tournament both personally and for his nation as his six goals saw him take home the Golden Boot.
ST – MARIO MANDZUKIC
Mandzukic probably isn’t one of the most coveted strikers in world football, but he’s certainly one of the most underrated. He’s not stylish or subtle, but what he is, is tenacious and tireless.
He drags defenders around and creates the space for teammates blessed with speed and flair players to move into. Only Dejan Lovren has won more aerial duels on average per game than his 4.6. He’s the man for the big occasion too, as proved by his match-winning goal against England.
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