Croatia's Luka Modric will be centre of attention when his team step onto the field for the World Cup final. Photo: Ricardo Mazalan/AP Photo
The winners of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, to be toasted with the honour of the title world champions for the next four years, will be revealed by the answer to two questions: Can N’Golo Kante stop Luka Modric? Can Croatia’s defence handle the pace of Kylian Mbappe?

France and Croatia line up for today’s World Cup final in Moscow in a match that encapsulates the crazy, emotional journey we’ve been on since the first ball was kicked on June 14. Really, was it a month ago? It seems like yesterday. But such has been the action, surprise, tension and drama, time has stood still and we’ve been swept away by the ardent idiosyncrasies so unique to football.

The climax of the competition certainly throws up the possibility of some intriguing moments.

Croatia skipper Modric is, for me, without doubt the man of the tournament and deserves to be awarded the Golden Ball, the prize for the best player on show. But France’s midfield roadblock Kante has been impressive too and it will be interesting to see whether he is able to minimise Modric’s influence on proceedings.

France's N'Golo Kante applauds their fans as he celebrates a World Cup victory after the match. Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

France teenager Mbappe used Russia 2018 to announce his arrival on the international stage. Already highlighted for his potential after stellar seasons with Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, the 19-year-old is now a global phenomenon (for example, my wife’s not much of a sports fan but even she’s shouting the name of Mbappe).

The speed with which the young Frenchman took Argentina apart in the last 16 will be remembered for a long time and now the question is whether Croatia can deal with his electric, frightening pace.

France are the favourites, rightly so, and if you ask me to put my money down, I’d put it on France too. They’ve gone about their business with no fuss and little sparkle, but they’ve been highly effective. In essence, they’ve sacrificed flair in favour of a more practical approach.

The emphasis has always been on structure and reducing risk and nobody in the French team has epitomised this philosophy more than Paul Pogba. Having watched the ostentatious Frenchman frustrating the life out of Man United manager José Mourinho last season, because of his underwhelming performances and unwillingness to scrap for the team, his mature performances at Russia 2018 have been admirable. It’s evident that Pogba has finally started to grasp that football is not just about him, but about the team. He’s been low-profile but brilliant; he’s got involved in the ugly side of the game; he’s been flash when needed and then popped up in important defensive situations too.

France's Kylian Mbappe (right) will want this good form to continue in the World Cup final. Photo: Petr David Josek/AP Photo

France have certainly benefited from the growth in Pogba’s game and needless to say, Mourinho probably can’t wait to unleash the player on the Premier League next season.

But don’t write off this Croatia side; if you do, you do so at your own peril. They’ve already demonstrated their commendable resolve and endurance, and exemplary perseverance and resilience. Led by Modric the Magnificent and backed up by Mandzukic the Fearless and Rakitic the Relentless, Croatia have nothing to lose and a helluva lot to gain. It’s their first-ever World Cup final: there can be no better motivation than to continue to upset the odds.

In closing, history beckons for France manager Didier Deschamps. If France win, he will join an élite club that currently consists of only two members  men who have won the World Cup both as a player and a coach: Brazil’s Mario Zagallo (1958 and 1970) and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer (1974 and 1990). Deschamps captained France to World Cup success in 1998  now, 20 years later, he is on the cusp of an amazing double, an achievement to savour. History calls.


Sunday Independent

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