France v Croatia is a surprising final but also a good reflection of this World Cup. After
Watching Didier Deschamps’ side, I have consistently been left with the feeling that there is another gear they can go to and this is also what makes them dangerous opponents – you cannot switch off against them for a second.
Croatia will, therefore, need to be patient and not leave themselves as exposed at the back as they did during the first half of their semi-final against England. They were incredibly open during that period and, in truth, were lucky not to be more than 1-0 down. However, Croatia also showed during the second half that they are a remarkably mature and resilient team and one that, unlike France, play to their absolute limit. They will push Deschamps’ men all the way.
Croatia’s aim will be to turn the final into a physical battle as this is the type of game their players like, no one more so than Mario Mandzukic. I played with him at Wolfsburg and as well as being a very good finisher he is a really hard worker, in training as well as on the pitch. He is constantly moving, constantly making life difficult for the defenders he comes up against and besides being prepared to take a challenge will give back as good as he gets. He is fearless.
Ante Rebic is similar. I have watched him a lot in the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt and he is another attacking player who likes a physical battle. He and Mandzukic lead from the front, setting the tone for the entire team and, as Mandzukic showed against England, providing a killer touch at key moments.
There is no doubt, however, who Croatia’s best player is. Luka Modric has been excellent during the tournament and particularly in the second half against England when, alongside Ivan Rakitic, he ran the game. I faced Modric in my time with West Ham, when he was at Tottenham, and I’m still traumatised by the experience. I couldn’t get near him; he passed when he needed to pass, dribbled when he needed to dribble and basically did not make a single wrong move for the entire 90 minutes.
What also stood out about Modric’s display on that day at White Hart Lane was how he protected possession. Much like Andrés Iniesta and Xavi he makes up for his lack of size and stature by getting his body between the ball and his opponent in the correct fashion. It may not look like much but it makes a huge difference.
Someone else who is very good at that is N’Golo Kanté. Like
Given he was a similar player himself, I’m sure Deschamps appreciates what Kanté gives France and he will be vital in what is sure to be an important midfield battle in Moscow. Whichever team wins that is likely to win the match.
Gareth Southgate and his side deserve great credit for getting to the semi-finals and, more importantly, reconnecting the country with the national team. We have lost that a little bit in Germany so