We heard it before the semifinals and now we’re hearing it again. Croatia’s players have to be absolutely exhausted ahead of the World Cup final against France. After needing penalty kicks to overcome Denmark and Russia, the Croatians went 120 minutes again in their win over England. Toward the end of the match with England even Luka Modric seemed to be struggling with his stamina.
Ivan Perisic was the key player for Zlatko Dalic’s side against the Three Lions, and it is no coincidence that he was subbed off early in the two previous games. The other player who looked relatively spry was Marcelo Brozovic, who was rotated into the squad for the semifinals.
It looks like Ivan Strinic will miss the final due to injury, and that could actually be a blessing in disguise for the Vatreni as Josip Pivaric is more than capable of filling in, and his fresh legs could play a pivotal role in shoring up the defense.
The X-factor in this game will be how much Croatia’s midfield duo of Modric and Ivan Rakitic have left in the tank. Modric is second-favorite to win the Golden Ball (Player of the Tournament), and Rakitic’s class means that defenses can’t just key in on Modric. That is especially important against France because N’Golo Kante has the ability to erase star players from entire matches.
France will be dealing with a couple of key injuries but, like with Strinic, it could be a blessing in disguise for Didier Deschamps. Olivier Giroud picked up a knock in the first half against Belgium, and Blaise Matuidi — who was fantastic in the quarterfinals against Uruguay — is dealing with a possible concussion. As Michael Goodman noted in his preview, Deschamps opts to play a conservative team, and that doesn’t make sense in this spot. I think France could blow Croatia out of the water if they went with a more aggressive lineup. Players such as Nabil Fekir and Ousmane Dembele could give Croatia’s exhausted defenders fits.
Since it is likely that Deschamps will stick to his guns, it’s hard not to pick Kylian Mbappe as the X-factor for France. The 19-year-old has been sensational all tournament long but he was on another planet against Belgium. Croatia had trouble dealing with Raheem Sterling’s speed in the semifinals, and Mbappe possesses similar pace and more skill than the England winger does. I expect Mbappe to be taking on defenders at any chance he gets.
I was a Croatia believer since the beginning of the tournament and backed them at +3300 to win the whole thing. However, I think this game sets up for Mbappe to steal the show. He has everything he needs to take over the game and push Croatia to the point of making a mistake.
I like France to lift the trophy at -220 despite the massive future that is staring me in the face. I will however be cheering for Croatia to pull off yet another upset and bring my 33-1 ticket home.