FROM FOOTBALL FORM LABS
France v Croatia – Sunday 15th July 16:00, BBC One
With a population of just four million Croatia have done phenomenally well to attain a spot in the World Cup final, and though they’re hardly also-rans with players from illustrious clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Juventus amongst their ranks, they’re yet to face one of the true favourites as their draw has really opened up. Argentina were top seeds in their group but were woeful this summer, while as good as England have been, the Three Lions were heavily reliant on set-pieces and struggled to create much against Zlatko Dalic’s side from open play. Similarly, Croatia struggled to create anything themselves until well into the second half versus Southgate’s men, and will need to do better going forwards when facing a defence that’s kept four cleans sheets in five games.
Les Bleus have experienced fairly serene progress through the knockout stages, with the 4-3 defeat of Argentina in the last 16 more comfortable than the scoreline would suggest, while last time out they became the first team at these finals to nullify the attacking talents of Roberto Martinez’s Belgium. France had lingering question marks over the exact personnel that should constitute their starting XI coming into the tournament, but a combination of exciting performances from teenager Kylian Mbappe and the tactical balance provided by Olivier Giroud’s hold-up play has cemented the forward areas in Deschamps’s mind. Pogba has often played it safe rather than setting out to dominate midfield, but his discipline alongside N’Golo Kante, his tidy passing as well as the occasional raking ball over the top for Mbappe to chase have proven effective.
The pace of the young Frenchman will be particularly concerning for a Croatian side that’s had to come from behind in each of their knockout matches as they’ve all gone to extra-time, and though they’ve shown great fortitude to fight back each time, it would be a surprise if fatigue doesn’t prove an issue for Zlatko Dalic’s men. Indeed, France have had the extra day to rest and prepare, while the average age of their squad (26.0 years old) compares favourably with Croatia’s (27.9), with the likes of key players Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic all the wrong side of 30. That’s significant, as the last six finals have all seen the younger team triumph, as the older side has run out of steam by the time of their seventh match. Furthermore, six of the last seven finalists that went to extra-time in their semi-final ended up losing in the tournament showpiece, with the exception West Germany in 1990, where their opponents Argentina had also gone the distance in their own semi-final encounter.
Recent major finals have been particularly cagey, with the last five World Cup, European Championship, Copa America and African Cup of Nations, all goalless after 90 minutes. Furthermore, going back to Euro 2000, 18 of the 23 finals at these tournaments have been level at half-time including all four at the World Cup. In fact, were it not for the above average difference in quality between these teams, plus the respective fatigue levels, we’d probably be recommending a draw at full-time. However, Croatia have been all-square after the opening-45 in 13 of their last 17 outings as well as in six of their nine defeats since the start of the last World Cup, while France have produced Draw/Win doubles in half their games this tournament.
Given Croatia will to a large extent set out to frustrate, a low-scoring game would certainly appear on the cards here and in fact, six of the last seven finals have seen fewer than three goals while four saw just one goal or less. The exception came in France’s 3-0 win over an out-of-sorts Brazil on home turf in 1998, and while we expect France to deliver the goods, they were resolute in an excellent defensive display in the last half hour of their win over Belgium, making a repeat 1-0 victory an attractive proposition.
While Giroud is a favourite of Didier Deschamps for his hold-up play, neither he nor Griezmann have really caught fire in Russia to date with the former yet to score and the latter only managing one goal from open play – the result of an embarrassing fumble by Uruguayan keeper Muslera. Kylian Mbappe has made the headlines with a series of lively performances, and having managed six goals in his last nine starts, with a burgeoning on-field relationship with Pogba developing, appears best value to strike for France.
France Win at 1.95
Draw/France at 4.9
France 1-0 Correct Score at 5.5
Kylian Mbappe anytime goalscorer at 3.25