France have won the World Cup final for the second time. The Champs-Elysees would have celebrated this 4-2 win over Croatia, long into the night. It was a day 20 years in the making.
Didier Deschamps became the third man after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer to lift the trophy as a coach and a player. An Antoine Griezmann penalty, an own goal from Mario Mandzukic and strikes from Kylian Mbappe and Paul Pogba were enough to give Les Bleus their second World Cup trophy as Croatia finished second best.
France start slow but grind out lead
Croatia were dogged, and battled through despite France’s array of talent. Les Bleus played the way they had done throughout the tournament, with minimal enthusiasm in a first half which ebbed and flowed both ways.
The Vatreni started off in an effervescent manner, piling on the attacks, preferring the left side. Throughout the tournament, France’s full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard had been the subject of many a preview, correctly predicting in most cases, that they would be targeted as the weak links.
It was no different from a French perspective as Zlatko Dalic’s game-plan centred around the bombardment of the French right flank, with Pavard behind the talent that is Mbappe. The Ivans – Strinic, the left-back and Perisic, the winger did their utmost to unsettle the 22-year-old Stuttgart man.
France’s steel in defence paid off as 15 minutes of rearguard action resulted in a free-kick, which could well a point of debate in Croatian circles. Griezmann stepped up to take the set-piece, which the Atletico Madrid man swung in but Mario Mandzukic got his head to it and it went past Daniel Subasic in the Croatian goal to give France the lead.
Perisic hit back as the ball rebounded to him at the edge of the box and the Inter Milan winger scorched a volley into the corner of the goal. The balance wasn’t to last for very long as Perisic turned villain sooner than you could say, ‘Allez, Les Blues’.
Referee takes the center-stage
A handball gave the referee Nestor Pitana a dilemma which the VAR system solved for him, as the penalty was given. VAR slows down the real-time action for referees to stop and take a look at decisions which may effect a match’s outcome. Here, Perisic’s hand was outstretched but by no means was he expecting the ball to reach him with Blaise Matuidi in front of him.
The way that handballs are viewed may have changed forever, with replays providing more conclusive evidence than before. Yet, the mockery lies in the written laws of the game, with decisions leaving very little room for time allowed for deliberation before impact. Matuidi’s touch diverted the ball onto Perisic’s hands and the Croatian winger had very little time or space to do anything about it. The biggest turning point of the match, perhaps, was a decision the man in the middle had to make. But it’s hard to say, even with the benefit of hindsight, whether that influenced the ultimate result, as Dalic himself observed.
He said, “I will not comment on the refereeing but let me say that in the World Cup final you don’t give such penalties. But that doesn’t take anything away from France. This was our best game. We controlled it well but France are deserving champions.”
Griezmann stepped up, like he had done on previous occasions throughout this World Cup and wrong-footed Subasic to give Deschamps’ men a crucial half-time lead.
Pogba, Mbappe and co lethal on counter
The argument that Croatian legs ran out of fuel was a false one, considering that they had fought three gargantuan battles prior to the final and had come out swinging, no thought for the blood in their legs. They wouldn’t go away quietly and had come to the Luzhniki to fight for their trophy rights.
The Vatreni had pushed and prodded Hugo Lloris and his defence, but they were rock solid throughout, with the exception of the one moment that the French number one might want to forget. Lloris had a Karius moment in the final, but that came after France had put the final beyond Croatia and Modric’s reach.
Pogba, who had once again been immense, set the wheels in motion when he released Mbappe down the right with one of the passes of the tournament. The PSG teenager couldn’t take advantage of a flagging Domagoj Vida. The ball eventually came to Pogba on the edge of the box, who struck it past Subasic at the second time of asking. Pogba, who wore shin pads dedicated to dad Rafa who passed away last year, went with his left foot but Croatia’s number one was clearly unsighted.
The Manchester United man had pulled the strings brilliantly and at times, had curbed his natural instinct to serve the larger French cause. The fourth goal and the dagger in Croatia’s World Cup heart was a counter once again, Mbappe and Griezmann streaking past Croatia’s midfield. Subasic will feel that he could have done better with France’s final goal but the teenager had made his mark on the final, with an effort from distance. Mbappe became the first teenager to score in the World Cup final since Pele did so famously in 1958.
Croatia should hold their heads high
Finally, a word for Croatia. Talks of a favourable draw and what not will possibly cloud this achievement, but 90 minutes cannot take away from a gritty, no-quarter-taken, no-quarter-given approach to a tournament that saw them lose only match, the final.
That 3-0 win over Argentina should instead be dissected and kept for observation in the World Cup’s hall of clinical displays as should the three consecutive come-from-behind wins in the knockouts. Grit, desire, hunger, all these qualities are un-substitutable, whatever be the population, 4 million or a billion.
Luka Modric won the Golden Ball, a personal award that will not mask nor abate the pain of losing the biggest final of his life. Scant consolation but just recognition for ‘Lukita’ who has resembled a man on a mission, albeit with a more-than-suitable support cast.
Dalic and his men exited with their heads high, it wasn’t a meek stage-left on any account. That most of this generation will be hard-pressed to make it to the next one is well known but they made their mark on the World stage two decades after Davor Suker, Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban had run the French close in Saint-Denis.