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
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)!”