Here are the talking points ahead of football’s grandest fixture, at Moscow’s 78,011-capacity Luzhniki Stadium.
HEAVYWEIGHT AGAINST UNDERDOG
The contrast between the nations is stark.
Croatia declared independence in 1991 and are bidding to claim their first major international trophy. Their only previous trip to the World Cup’s knockouts came 20 years ago, when a double from legendary right-back Lilian Thuram – his 142 caps contain no more goals – earned hosts France a 2-1, come-from-behind semi-final triumph.
Les Bleus have been in three of the last six global showpieces, gaining glory at Stade de France in 1998. They also surprisingly lost Euro 2016’s decider 1-0 on home soil to a Portugal side who missed injured superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo after the 25-minute mark.
This disparity continues to the dugout, where France’s Didier Deschamps is bidding to become just the third person to win the World Cup as a player and head coach.
Unifying Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic has been in charge for the past nine months, his last job coming at Al Ain from March 2014-January 2017. He successfully gained qualification via the play-offs after he inherited a fragmented squad from the divisive Ante Cacic.
Real Madrid conductor Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus warrior Mario Mandzukic stand-up to the likes of Paris Saint-Germain starlet Kylian Mbappe, Manchester United No6 Paul Pogba and Atletico Madrid forward Antoine Griezmann.
But the CIES Football Observatory handed France’s squad a leading valuation of €1.4 billion, way ahead of Croatia’s €416 million in 10th place.
Vatreni (The Blazers) are the lowest-ranked country on record to make the final.
They are the first team since England in 1990 whose three knockout matches have gone to extra time. No other side at World Cups has recovered from 1-0 down to advance from the round of 16, quarter-final and semi-final.
France’s squad averages 283 minutes-per-man in Russia. For their opponents, this figure rises to 331. With a population of four million, Croatia are also the smallest nation to make the decider since Uruguay in 1950.
However, not all hope of an upset is lost. Propitiously, Uruguay then inflicted the ‘Maracanazo’ on organisers Brazil and prevailed.
This running has seen holders Germany defeated by Mexico and South Korea, exiting ignominiously in last place from Group F. The 2010 champions Spain lost on penalties to lowly ranked hosts Russia in the round of 16, plus unfancied England made the last-four.
Croatia were not even tipped to proceed that far. Now, they must seize this shot at history.
IT’S NOT JUST THE MBAPPE V MODRIC SHOW
A major narrative coming into this grandstand event is the battle between rising PSG superstar Mbappe and Madrid metronome Modric.
It’s one which could decide the destiny of the World Cup, plus break the decade-long duopoly Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have held on the Ballon d’Or.
But the aforementioned pair will be the first to acknowledge that key members of each support cast will provide the foundations for them to prosper.
In Juventus’ Blaise Matuidi and Internazionale’s Marcelo Brozovic, two of the globe’s premier defensive-minded midfielders will be on show.
Matuidi was introduced to the France XI for the 1-0 win against Peru, their second commitment in Group C. His tireless drive as the man marker has added necessary balance.
It’s allowed Pogba the security to flourish as a box-to-box midfielder, plus aid the team’s transition in and out of possession from a defensive 4-2-3-1 to an offensive 4-4-2 formation.
Croatia have lacked fluidity whenever Brozovic has started from the bench, such as the opening 2-0 win against Nigeria and quarter-final against Russia.
His presence absolves Modric of most defensive duties and Rakitic of some.
WHERE IT WILL BE WON AND LOST
The themes of this final are easy to spot.
France’s four clean sheets is the most in the competition. The opening/only goal in both the quarter-final – versus Uruguay – and semi-final – versus Belgium – were scored from a set-piece by a centre-back.
Griezmann has three strikes, but sporadically sparkled. Centre forward Olivier Giroud has yet to register a shot on target from 465 minutes of action.
Only when 2-1 down against ramshackle Argentina in the round of 16 have France moved into top gear. Then, three goals followed in nine minutes.
As witnessed when checking Belgium’s momentum in the last-four, Deschamps minimises risk and does the minimum to win.
Croatia exert control in midfield through Brozovic, Rakitic and Modric. Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is tasked with advancing from deep, coming up with major plays in the previous two rounds.
Wide men Ivan Perisic – who got a goal and assist on Wednesday versus England – and Ante Rebic are told to attack the penalty box. Their stature and pace will worry France’s full-backs.
Croatia average more possession (54.5/51.3 per cent) and shots per game (16.5/12.3) in Russia. Disciplined France hold the edge in tackles per game (16.7/14.7) and pass accuracy (82.9/80.8 per cent).
In boxing, styles make fights. This box-office bout at the Luzhniki should be worthy of the occasion.
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Here, we review how head coaches Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate have fared in Russia:
Southgate’s faith in international rookies such as Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford and Jesse Lingard was fully justified by results.
But he may rue a decision not to gamble on playmaker Adam Lallana’s fitness. A lack of creativity from open play hamstrung England.
The big call by Martinez pre-tournament resolved around centre midfielder Radja Nainggolan.
Hugely talented but combustible, the Spaniard’s brave call to omit the new Internazionale signing has been rewarded by the harmony that defines this usually fragmented squad.
The decision not to include Jordan Lukaku, however, who would have been the only recognised left-back in the squad, is troubling given that Yannick Carrasco etc were severely strained defensively.
Martinez’s 3-5-2 formation was unpopular among a number of his players before the tournament and required refinement to a 4-3-3 in the later rounds to gain success.
The deployment of Kevin De Bruyne further up the pitch gained belated reward in the quarter-finals. But a lack of synchronicity then hurt the team against France.
Southgate’s 3-5-2 shape largely hid inherent weaknesses in defence and provided a more coherent structure than the 4-2-3-1 utilised in qualifying.
When compared to the disorganisation that bedevilled England under confused predecessor Roy Hodgson, this was a true success.
If things needed to change for Belgium, then Martinez largely came up trumps.
Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli scored goals off the bench in the rousing 3-2 comeback win against Japan during the round of 16. Dries Mertens then provided a better outlet than the latter in defeat to France in the semi-finals.
The only true blotch on Southgate’s record in Russia was his use of substitutions.
The early removal of Raheem Sterling against Croatia in the semi-finals was perplexing. Eric Dier might have won the penalty shootout for England v Colombia in the round of 16, but his performance was woeful.
Here are the key battles at Saint Petersburg Stadium:
THOMAS MEUNIER V TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD
How Belgium missed the suspended Thomas Meunier during their narrow semi-final loss to France.
The unavailability of the Paris Saint-Germain right-back afflicted the one area without any specialist cover in head coach Roberto Martinez’s squad.
Stand-in Nacer Chadli did a poor impression of the first choice’s work and was specially catered for by Les Bleus’ tactics.
They tightly marked Belgium’s main attacking threats, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, allowing the ball to be funnelled to the ineffectual West Bromwich Albion reject. Meunier’s powerful runs from deep and punishing crosses could not be replicated.
The returnee will now look to utilise these strengths against England, bombing into the space vacated out wide in their 3-5-2 formation.
Few teenagers can match the composure of Liverpool and England defender Trent Alexander-Arnold.
No matter how grand the occasion has been in the 19-year-old’s nascent career, he’s responded with poise and self-assuredness. These character traits should be required, once again, in Saint Petersburg with first-choice right wing-back Kieran Trippier struggling with a groin complaint.
Three Lions head coach Gareth Southgate will not worry about Alexander-Arnold. He made his first Premier League start at bitter rivals Manchester United, struck an explosive free-kick during his Champions League debut in the play-off against Hoffenheim and became Liverpool’s youngest-ever starter in the final – May’s 3-1 loss to Real Madrid.
Having played 79 minutes against Belgium in the group stage, he’ll relish another chance to impress.
AXEL WITSEL V FABIAN DELPH
Belgium will look to Axel Witsel to win the midfield war against England.
Among the Red Devils’ first-choice players who’ve made five appearances in Russia, only centre-back Jan Vertonghen’s average of 1.8 tackles per game is better than Witsel’s 1.6. The Tianjin Quanjian battler’s pass accuracy of 93.5 per cent is the best among Martinez’s established XI.
A new face will lead the fight for the Three Lions at Saint Petersburg.
Dele Alli’s nagging quad injury should mean he drops out for Manchester City’s Fabian Delph. The 28-year-old started in a second string when Belgium won 1-0 when Group G wound up, plus has twice come off the substitutes’ bench.
His average of 2.1 tackles per game in the Premier League during 2017/18 should provide Southgate with a sense of security.
KEVIN DE BRUYNE V JESSE LINGARD
Kevin De Bruyne should have something to prove after his disappointing performance in defeat to France.
The Manchester City superstar was unable to showcase his genius at the semi-final stage, as attentions from the likes of Blaise Matuidi shut him down. He produced one key pass, a pass accuracy of 73.1 per cent and had just two attempts on goal.
Jesse Lingard is likely to retain his place in England’s XI, despite playing 483 minutes in Russia.
His role as a link man is shown by an outstanding pass accuracy of 92.6 per cent. Where frustration comes is that he couldn’t wrestle back control of proceedings in defeat to Croatia in the last-four, plus has only registered a single assist and goal at the tournament.