This World Cup will be remembered for many things — buckets and buckets of extra-time goals, compelling drama and unexpected departures. The three favorites entering the tournament either didn’t make the knockout round (Germany), had their coach replaced right before the tournament started (Spain) or set the record in defeat for most times rolling across the field (Brazil). Croatia and France — neither a giant underdog throughout but more just thankful recipients of the draws they were given — are all that remain. What will their final look like, and will it look like what we’ve seen from these teams before?
There are compelling plots that are known worldwide — Croatia’s fatigue, and France’s dominance in the defensive midfield against Belgium. Those may be reasons why you bet, but those are the two factors I see baked the most into the numbers, with France a very sizable favorite and the total juiced under two goals.
Here’s something I don’t see reflected at all: Croatia have conceded in their last four matches in this tournament. They’ve conceded in each of their knockout-round matches, and within the 90 minutes each time. They don’t play everyone behind the ball, they have midfielders who are elite and perfectly capable of creating chances against anyone, and a striker with an exemplary work rate. If the total for any of their previous matches in the tournament was 2 (which it is for the final), they would be undefeated vs. the number, with several pushes.
Here’s something else I don’t see reflected in prices: how much France’s 1-0 win vs. Belgium was about Belgium’s ineptitude. Yes, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba played great in the midfield, but it also helps when all of Belgium’s midfielders save for Eden Hazard looked incredibly uncomfortable with the structure the team was playing. Was Nacer Chadli playing as a wing back? Was he in defense? What was Marouane Fellaini’s role for about 75 minutes exactly? How invisible was Romelu Lukaku for most of the match, and how much of that is attributed to France’s defense?
There are unanswered questions here, and the answers may not make France the defensive juggernaut we all praised Wednesday. Before their semifinal, France played a 2-0 quarterfinal vs Uruguay that was noncompetitive due to Edinson Cavani’s absence, and a 4-3 goal-fest vs Argentina. Even in the friendly season, their score-lines vs. competent European foes stand out: 2-2 vs Germany, 3-1 vs. Russia, 3-1 vs. Italy.
Yes, those are friendlies, and I’m not saying they are the same. But I am saying their offensive prowess against European foes was clear in each contest essentially up to Wednesday. Going back even further, just because they shrank in the Euro final vs. Portugal two years ago, wasn’t that also about Portugal’s style of “11 behind the ball” once Cristiano Ronaldo got hurt?
I think there’s enough here, in terms of evidentiary support — but also unanswered questions — that the over at its inflated plus-money price is good value. It’s also somewhat contrarian, which is something I look for in super-high profile spots such as this. I’ll take over 2 at +105.