A month ago, if someone had predicted that France and Croatia would play the World Cup final in Russia, most of us would have dumped it as an impossible option. But here we are with that spectacularly different reality -- the Les Bleus and the Blazers lining up for today's final at the Luzhniki Stadium.
France are no rank outsiders -- they are a proven force and won the World Cup in 1998. But Croatia have certainly lived up their nickname -- blazing their way to their first-ever World Cup final. And if Croatia win, they will be the ninth nation to lift the coveted trophy.
Do they deserve it? Let's have the facts -- they played three knockout games on the trot for 120 minutes and more importantly they did it the hard way. Croatia won their semifinal against England in style – coming from a goal down to win it 2-1 in extra time, with Mario Mandzukic slamming the winner on 109 minutes. Not only that, they won their three group stage games which included a thumping 3-0 win against two-time world champions Argentina.
This Croatia team have so far not only demonstrated that they have got the qualities, if not pedigree, to go all the way to win the title. They will be up against a team they lost thrice against two draws in the last five meetings, but Croatia's inspirational coach Zlatko Dalic said past statistics would not win his opponents today's final.
“Statics, tradition and head to head -- I don't buy those. Tradition is there to be demolished. We do not mind who is on the other side of the pitch. We have come here to enjoy the moment and give our best. We deserved to play in the final; we want the world to watch Croatia play; we want most of the world to root for us. This is important. We will give our all, we will enjoy our football and whoever is the better team may they win,” Dalic said ahead of the final.
After that semifinal heart-break against France in their maiden World Cup appearance in 1998, Croatia lurched from bad to worse in the following three editions of the World Cup. They made it to Russia at the last moment but since then it has been a spectacular journey for them with Luca Modric playing the key role in a very experienced side.
They might have played more minutes and got less rest compared to France and they have so far proved that they love to grind their way out of a hole. This tough mentality might prove handy for them against an extremely talented yet raw French side, who had only one tough game against Belgium in the semifinal. France were successful in defending a 54th-minute Umtiti lead against Belgium. But the ploy of sitting back against a vastly experienced Croatia side might prove costly for them.
France will bank on the brilliance of Kylian Mbappe to create something on the break. But the key player for the Les Bleus would once again be again Antoine Grizemann and it will be interesting to see who controls the midfield.
France captain Hugo Lloris is well aware that this Croatia team is not only very experienced but have the quality too. He also reminded that they would have to be at their best if they want France to lift the World Cup for a second time and put behind the home disappointment of the Euro 2016 final against Portugal.
Twenty years ago, France joined the exclusive group of World Cup winners, defeating Brazil in the final. Croatia made their first appearance in that year and bowed out, suffering an agonising 2-1 semifinal defeat against France. They will get a second chance at redemption. And if they can do that, it will be gift to the dreamers. Croatia is a county of only four million people, but Dalic promised that the seismic wave back in Croatia would be even bigger than Brazil and Argentina if they win the final.