By Alistair Hendrie
In a World Cup brimming with late drama, unforgettable goals and seismic upsets, would the final between France and Croatia live up to expectations? It certainly did. France emerged from 90 minutes of mayhem to win 4-2, clinching their second World Cup since their inaugural triumph in 1998 on home soil. Didier Deschamps’ men may be more functional than flamboyant, but that doesn’t matter when you have the burly Raphael Varane putting his body on the line in defence, the ice-cool N'Golo Kante anticipating every passage of play in midfield, and Kylian Mbappe sprinting past opponents with ease in attack.
At 2-1 down on the hour, Croatia drove forward with the kind of intensity that helped them overcome England and Russia after extra-time and penalties. Ivan Perisic should have gambled to convert Ivan Rakitic’s cross, while the unflappable Varane intervened when Perisic was through on goal again. Once France bagged a third though, through Paul Pogba’s deft finish, chaos ensued in a period which yielded three goals in ten minutes. The second of those came from France too, Mbappe slamming home to make it 4-1. Still the madness continued. France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris gifted Croatia a lifeline on 68 minutes, when Mario Mandzukic capitalised on the shot-stopper’s indecision to block the ball into the net from six yards.
Although France will savour their fourth trophy in a major tournament, it seems ironic that on a night when Mbappe became the first teenager to score at a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, Lloris on the other hand committed an error which may haunt him for the rest of his career. Individual performances aside, France were deserved champions, fending off the adventure and verve of Belgium in the semi-finals and Croatia in the decider. With that, Deschamps follows Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer in grasping the World Cup as a player and a manager.
Croatia can come again, though. Zlatko Dalic’s men played with a fierce togetherness throughout their stint in Russia, with Perisic and Ante Rebic in particular scampering after lost causes as if their lives depended on it. Judging by that kind of fight and endurance, it’s no surprise Croatia scored four goals in the 90th minute or later on their way to the final. And although the talismanic Luka Modric, 33, may be coming to the end of his international career, Mandzukic, 32, is Croatia’s only other outfield regular who is over 30. A tilt at the 2020 European Championships beckons.
It was the Croatians who started the final the brighter, Perisic and Ivan Strinic sending early balls from the left towards Mandzukic. Ivan Rakitic, the Croatian central midfielder from Barcelona, looped a ball toward the penalty area but Perisic’s lunge was short by perhaps an inch or two.
Against the run of play, France struck first. Varane skipped across Antionne Griezmann’s arcing free kick, coaxing Mandzukic into heading beyond Daniel Subasic and into his own net. Although Perisic equalised with a volley inside the right-hand post, Griezmann’s penalty put France ahead for a second time. VAR had a defining say. After a video review from referee Nestor Pitana, Perisic was adjudged to have handled Griezmann’s corner. Although Perisic was too close to the flight of the ball to be guilty of a deliberate offense, that didn’t bother Griezmann, who showed nerves of steel to send Subasic the wrong way.
Croatia festered with a sense of injustice. Tremors of thunder filled the air. A pair of streakers bounded onto the playing area. Suffice to say, the second half was all a bit barmy. France found themselves 4-1 up in a flash, Pogba and Mbappe each converting from 20 yards out on 58 and 64 minutes. Pogba’s finish was as assured as it gets, the Manchester United midfielder finding the bottom right-hand corner and wrong-footing Subasic. Mbappe’s was a peach. The gifted 19-year-old trapped Varane’s squared delivery, nudged the ball out of his feet and slammed hard and true into the bottom left corner of the net in one swift, graceful movement. The world is at his feet as they say, and comparisons with Thierry Henry are beginning to look more justified with each passing week.
As Croatia ran themselves into the ground looking for a way back, spaces yawned all over the pitch for both sides. Then came Lloris’s howler for 4-2. The French number one shimmied one way and inexplicably turned back towards Mandzukic, who couldn’t believe his luck as the ball ricocheted off his left boot and into an empty net. It was a calamitous piece of play from a veteran in Lloris who should know better.
That error, thankfully enough, didn’t have a bearing on France’s coronation as world champions. Instead it was Mbappe’s incisive runs that we’ll remember – his slalom around the outside of Domagoj Vida was particularly breath-taking. Griezmann’s deliveries were as reliable as ever, as the Atletico Madrid goal-getter continues to cement his reputation as one of the world’s most complete forwards. Elsewhere, Varane mopped up everything in his wake, directing play with optimum composure. Sure, Deschamps side didn’t provide as much entertainment over the last month as Croatia or Belgium – or perhaps even the hosts – but that won’t weigh on the minds of the French as they lift the trophy.
Learn about another one of the World Cup's star teams - Belgium - with Alistair Hendrie's blog on how the Red Devils taught England a lesson in attacking football