Match Preview: Croatia vs. France
In a World Cup filled with upsets, France and Croatia with their reserves of mental fortitude, tactical stability and physical endurance have emerged as fitting finalists at the Luzhniki Stadium. While Croatia have had a tougher journey to the finals, with all of their knockout games going to extra time, France had a more comfortable route barring the thrilling round of 16 encounter with Argentina. With both teams possessing an inspirational goalkeeper, a solid defence, an effervescent midfield and an industrious forward line, the match promises to be a classic for the ages.
The Croatian powers of bouncebackability were on full display against England, as they recovered from a listless first half to win the game in extra time. The positional sense, game management, technique, and endurance of the Croatian team showed as they slowly began to outplay a top heavy opposition. France, though, will pose a different challenge than England. With a balanced midfield that can switch with ease from a pivot to a three, they are unlikely to get outmanned. In addition to positional flexibility, the skill sets offered by N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, and Blaise Matuidi are multidimensional as well. They can retain possession to kill a game, break attacks at will, as well as launch into counters. In their last two knockout games, the French have taken the lead and either consolidated it or protected it ensuring that pockets of space aren’t available to opposition attacks. Moreover, the French defence has been impeccable thus far, looking measured while facing some of the best attacking talents in the world. Against such an organized lineup, conceding the first goal would raise alarms, and Croatia will have to control the game through intermittent phases of pressing followed by rapid counter attacks. Modric in all likelihood will start as the right sided central midfielder, and will have to ensure that Matuidi doesn’t spring into counters. Rakitic on the other hand will be responsible for disrupting the flow of Paul Pogba. Winning the ball in the opposition third and releasing the like soft Vrsaljko, Rebic, and Perisic could be an effective method to counter the French, and in order to implement this strategy, it is imperative that the likes of right winger, Ante Rebic and left back Ivan Strinic provide more quality from their crossing positions.
Notwithstanding the criticisms of playacting and defensive football, Didier Deschamps’ team start as favourites in the World Cup final. Barring a tense first quarter of the match, the French looked firmly in control against the Belgians. After a period of acclimatising to Belgium's 3-5-1-1 formation, the midfield started getting a foothold in the game, as they initiated dangerous counters to threaten the Belgian goal. These counters forced the momentum to shift to France, with Belgium playing more safe. Eden Hazard too was pushed deeper into the wing back position with the game finely balanced at half time. A quick goal in the second half was followed by a masterclass in game management and defensive discipline with France emerging victorious. In their games against Argentina and Belgium. France have shown the tenacity to soak pressure before striking back in devastating fashion. Against Croatia, the game plan will be on similar lines, with France relying on their defensive solidity and midfield versatility to ensure a strong foundation from which they can counter attack. Facing an qually classy midfield who are able to fare in the attritional, France will look to establish an early lead and once again challenge the Croats to come back from a deficit. A tactical tweak to help in this direction could be to push Matuidi further forward and wide for longer periods as a traditional left winger, to provide an outlet during counters as well as an unlikely presence in the penalty box. In a game of fine margins, the result may well depend on tweaks which signal intent.
Player to Watch Croatia Marcelo Brozovic: The Inter Milan midfielder who emerged in the bigtime during the last World Cup, has come of age in this tournament, being the indispensable link and assurance to midfield maestros, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. His ability to simplify the game through clear decision making and combine this with tireless energy will be crucial against a balanced French team. Yet, the swashbuckling marauding potential of Brozovic hasn’t been realized thus far in the World Cup. If Brozovic can conjure up one of the two-way performances he is capable of, he can prove to be the difference maker for Croatian hopes. France Antoine Griezmann: Substance over style has been the mantra of this French team, and Antoine Griezmann perfectly embodies these sentiments. Theoretically playing the role of secondary striker, Griezmann in fact plays a hybrid false 10 position. He drops deep to create space for the wide players, links up with target man Giroud by running the channels, as well as help defensively when out of possession. To add to his industry is the skill to run at defenders and shoot from distance. An all round display by him might help to tilt the scales in France’s favour. Predicted Lineups Croatia: 1-4-3-3 Subasic- Vrsjalko, Loveren, VIda, Strinic- Modric, Brozovic, Rakitic- Rebic, mandzukic, perisic France: 1- 4-4-1-1 Lloris- Parvard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez- Mbappe, Kante, Pogba, Matuidi- Griezmann, Giroud