A man unlikely to score a goal and not playing goalkeeper could heavily sway the outcome of the World Cup final between France and Croatia on Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Take a moment to examine the credentials of N’Golo Kante, whose five-year meteoric rise from Ligue 2 and Caen could reach its apex if Les Bleus add a second title to the one they won as hosts in 1998. After helping Caen win promotion to Ligue 1 in 2014 and playing a second season there, he appeared on the radar of Leicester City and well, you know the rest.
The rags-to-riches story of the Foxes going from relegation-threatened to regality with their 2016 Premier League title. Sensing what he could do in front of a three-man backline that brought him so much acclaim at Juventus, Antonio Conte poached Kante for Chelsea, where he became the first player in Premier League history to win back-to-back titles for two different teams.
His trajectory at the international scene has been slightly uneven, with the chance of him joining Mali in 2015. Kante made his competitive debut for France at the 2016 European Championship, helping Les Bleus get to the final, where he sat unused for 120 minutes in Paris as they lost to Portugal after extra time.
Manager Didier Deschamps — himself the “water-carrier” on the 1998 team playing the same role as Kante — has not made that mistake a second time in Russia, as a win would make him the third person to win the World Cup as a player and manager alongside Franz Beckenbauer of Germany and Mario Zagallo of Brazil.
Kante has logged all 540 minutes over France’s six matches en route to its third World Cup final in 20 years and covered 62.7 kilometers of ground, 27.4 of which have come with his team not in possession.
He has won 58 balls and lost only 31, forming a lethal tandem with Blaise Matuidi in front of France’s back four as Les Bleus have recorded back-to-back clean sheets in wins over Uruguay and Belgium.
“NG is always very reserved, very calm and very timid,” France midfielder Paul Pogba said at Thursday’s press conference per Reuters. “Except when he is playing cards.
“We understand each other very well, we talk, we give each other advice. It is a very special relationship. He is just a great guy.”
Kante’s dominance allows Pogba the freedom to roam forward in attack and join stars Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud. But it was clearly apparent in France’s 1-0 win over Belgium that the Manchester United midfielder has bought into his defensive responsibilities, often backtracking into his penalty area and man-marking while helping his defenders win aerial clearances.
While Griezmann may be the string-puller on offense with three goals and two assists, Pogba is showing the two-way game Jose Mourinho was trying to coax out of him all season with United.
Though Kante is France’s immovable object of the midfield, Croatia counters with an irresistible force of its own in Luka Modric in its first World Cup final appearance. The Vatreni burst onto the international football scene in France 20 years ago, reaching the semifinals before falling to Les Bleus and claiming third place in their maiden showing.
This is the first World Cup they advanced from group play since 1998, with Modric and his teammates taking the longest road to get to Moscow. Croatia has gone to extra time in all three matches, beating Denmark and Russia via penalties before defeating England 2-1 after 120 minutes Wednesday without the stomach-churning agony of spot kicks.
At just under 63 kilometers, Modric is the only player to have covered more ground than Kante, helped by the extra 64 minutes he has been able to play because of Croatia’s three extended matches. But there is much quality as there is quantity to the midfielder’s game as he and Ivan Perisic gradually took over the semifinal match against England.
While Modric bossed the midfield, Perisic was a torment on the left side and had a massive match as he scored Croatia’s equalizer and assisted on Mario Mandzukic’s winner in the 109th minute. Modric, Perisic and Mandzukic all have two goals and an assist, and while Ivan Rakitic has scored just once in the six matches to get to the finals, the Vatreni would not be here without him since he converted both decisive penalties.
“Again there was drama, it couldn’t have been otherwise,” Perisic told FIFA’s official website after Wednesday’s win. “Three times now we’ve been a goal down and have come back, and that really says a lot about our team spirit. And that is a real feature of this generation of players. We have one more game left, and we have never been more motivated.”
The combination of the extra 90 minutes of play plus the one day less to recover could loom large in Croatia’s preparation for this match, perhaps even forcing coach Zlatko Dalic to make changes on the periphery surrounding his axis of Modric, Perisic, Rakitic and Mandzukic.
Left back Ivan Strinic has not been 100 percent the last two matches, with Josep Pivaric serving as a capable understudy versus England after a shaky performance against Russia. It is possible Andrej Kramaric gets the start over Marcelo Brozovic similar to Dalic’s XI versus Russia in which Modric lays deep in a diamond midfield.
Dalic does have options, though some changes may be out of strategic necessity due to the cumulative fatigue. Still, with so much pride from so small a nation — at just over four million people, Croatia would be the second-smallest country to win the World Cup behind only 1930 and 1934 winner Uruguay — it would also not be surprising to see him present an unchanged XI from the semifinal victory.
“We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character. What our players did today, the strength and stamina they’ve shown, the energy level, I wanted to make substitutions but nobody wanted to come off,” Dalic said. “We’re preparing for another daunting task but we’re ready for it. We had three times extra time, but that’s up to us. We didn’t score earlier, we can ask why didn’t we finish the job in 90 minutes.
“There will be no excuses, we should not take that path. We have to play as if this was the first game of this tournament. We are not going to fish for excuses.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 16 — France 2, Australia 1 (Griezmann 58′ (PK), Jedinak 62′ (PK), Behich 81′ (og))
June 21 — France 1, Peru 0 (Mbappe 34′)
June 26 — France 0, Denmark 0
June 30 — France 4, Argentina 3 (Griezmann 13′ (PK), Di Maria 41′, Mercado 48′, Pavard 57′, Mbappe 64′, Mbappe 68′, Aguero 90+3′)
July 6 — France 2, Uruguay 0 (Varane 40′, Griezmann 61′)
July 10 — France 1, Belgium 0 (Umtiti 51′)
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
July 7 — Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31′, Kramaric 39′, Vida 101′, Fernandes 115′) (Croatia wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 11 — Croatia 2, England 1 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it for France, which has been in a 4-2-3-1 set-up since late in its opening match against Australia and is likely to use this starting XI for the second straight match after yellow cards forced Matuidi to miss the quarters. Two of Les Bleus last three goals have come from their central defenders as Griezmann provided the passes for both Umiti’s and Rapahel Varane’s goals around his goal in the quarterfinal versus Uruguay.
While Croatia sometimes lets Modric operate as a lone midfielder in front of his back four, there is plenty of flexibility as the Real Madrid man often forms triangles with Rakitic and Perisic on the left. Sometimes Rakitic will drop back to help similar to how France delopy Matuidi and Kante, which allows Rakitic the space to pour forward and find creases in opposing defenses.
INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES
Neither team has a player ineligible for this match, though Croatia has been operating one man short since sending Nikola Kalinic home after its opening match for not entering as a substitute when Dalic asked. While Strinic has come out in each of the last two matches, it would seem difficult to believe he would make way for Pivaric at left back.
Deschamps has a full 23-man roster to utilize, with Corentin Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele, Steven N’Zonzi and Nabil Fekir has top options off the bench depending on strategy for substitutions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
France — Olivier Giroud (F)
While Giroud has failed to place any of his 10 shots on target in Russia, he has done all Deschamps has asked of him by being the target forward France needs to create space offensively. He played a higher line against Belgium, which allowed Griezmann and Mbappe to try and find space with their quickness. While many have derisively compared his contributions to Stephane Guivarc’h from the 1998 squad, Giroud likely will happily take them if it means he gets to lift the Jules Rimet trophy.
Croatia — Danjiel Subasic (GK)
His quality at stopping penalty kicks aside, Subasic did not have a match to remember against England in the semifinals. He failed to create a quality wall that led to Kieran Trippier’s goal off a free kick, failing to even locate the ball until it was right on top of him and in the upper right corner of the net. Subasic has made 12 saves in his five matches at this World Cup, and given his counterpart Hugo Lloris’ fine run of form heading into this final, the Monaco No. 1 is going to have to raise his game if Croatia is to spring a large World Cup upset.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
1998 (France) SF — France 2, Croatia 1 (Suker 46′, Thuram 47′, 70′)
France did not trail at any point as host in the 1998 World Cup until Davor Suker put Croatia ahead 26 seconds after the restart, latching onto a smart chip over France’s defense by Aljosa Asanovic for his fifth goal of the tournament. Les Bleus would strike back immediately as defender Lillian Thuram dispossessed Zvonimir Boban and worked a 1-2 with Youri Djorkaeff before going across across Drazen Ladic for the equalizer.
In the 70th minute, Thuram completed his brace with an inch-perfect curling strike from 20 yards on the right, bending it inside the far post on the bounce. France held out the final 16 minutes with 10 men after defender Laurent Blanc was sent off. While Blanc did make contact with Slaven Bilic with an open hand and shove to Bilic’s chest, the Croat play-acted as if the contact was on his face, and referee Jose Manuel Garcia did not have VAR reveal the truth.
The last meeting between the teams in a tournament setting was a 2-2 draw in group play at the 2004 European Championship. David Trezeguet gave Les Bleus a contentious draw with his equalizer on 64 minutes after it appeared he controlled the ball with his hand before scoring.
The Vatreni have never beaten France in five all-time matches, losing three and drawing two.
Per Ladbrokes, France is a heavy favorite at better-than-even odds (10/11), and Croatia is a firm underdog at 18/5. The odds of the match ending in a draw and going to penalty kicks are 11/5. Oddsmakers are expecting a two-goal total as that returns 23/10 odds, closely followed by a 1-0 verdict at 5/2. A three-goal haul has 15/4 odds, and a scoreless contest checks in at 11/2.
For first goal-scorers, Griezmann and Mbappe are joint-favorites at 9/2 followed by Giroud at 11/2. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 15/2 and seventh overall in the pecking order.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Nestor Pitana opened the World Cup as the referee for the Russia-Saudi Arabia match, and the Argentine will close the tournament as the man in the middle for the final. It will be his second match involving the championship teams, having overseen Croatia’s round of 16 victory over Denmark and France’s quarterfinal win over Uruguay. Pitana also was in charge of the group stage match between Mexico and Sweden.
“We won’t change what we’ve been doing up until now,” Pitana told FIFA’s official website. “We’ll be very focused as always, that’s what has got us here. This team have worked so hard to get where we are, we’ve managed one of the greatest achievements in the world of refereeing. And now we want to finish the job, in the best way possible.”
While some people have complained that Deschamps has gone “anti-football” in stifling both Uruguay and Belgium in the last two matches, the other truth is that he has gotten his offensively gifted players to play two-way games as a checks and balances that augment the playmaking skills of Griezmann and Pogba.
Griezmann is a No. 10 without the No. 10, a shrewd player who knows where and when to pop up to receive the ball in advantageous situations. Much had been made of Pogba after an inconsistent season with United, and while he does not have a goal or an assist, he has done what Deschamps has asked of him in being a destroyer over a facilitator because Les Bleus have plenty of facilitators.
Giroud could be the X-factor in all of this. He could have done better against Belgium, most notably failing to get his feet together when Mbappe delivered a perfect cross. He knows this and the world knows this. But Deschamps is going to ride him because of how much better France’s offense flows when he’s on the pitch and also because he’s still capable of delivering on set pieces, an area Croatia has struggled in giving up goals the last two matches.
For all the talk Croatia’s players have made in insisting they will be ready for Sunday, one is allowed to wonder just how much they have left to give. Mandzukic was almost let for dead before his professional goal in which he found the half-second of time to ghost into the space England defender John Stones should have been on the winning goal.
Someone behind the big three of Modric, Perisic and Rakitic must deliver, and the most likely candidate is Ante Rebic. If he can pin Lucas Hernandez back and allow Sime Vrsaljko to get forward from right back, the Vatreni can create problems offensively.
While France has played a more offensively loaded team already in Argentina, Croatia is a far better balanced squad that can diversify its attacks narrow or wide, though it did far more damage against England when it was able to utilize the flanks.
This should be an entertaining match for purists, especially as Kante and Modric battle all over the pitch since neither will give the other any quarter or moment of respite. But between France’s quality at seemingly every position as well as the cumulative fatigue Croatia has accrued in its valiant quest to get to the final, it is difficult to see an outcome other than Les Bleus getting a second star as World Cup champions.
PREDICTION: FRANCE 2, CROATIA 0
France will kickoff the new Nations League hosting Germany on Sept. 6, while Croatia’s first match in UEFA’s new set-up will be at Spain on Sept. 11.