France vs Croatia: Player battles to look forward to

Ahead of Sunday's block-buster clash between France and Croatia, Sportstar puts together the player battles that might shape the FIFA World Cup 2018 final.

One of the key battles will unfold on the right flank, where Croatia’s left-back Ivan Strinic, will be tasked with containing the seemingly unstoppable Kylian Mbappe. 

More than half of Croatia’s team on Sunday played in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Croatia underachieved in Brazil four years ago when it failed to get past the group stage. While the country has been a relative novice as a participant on the world stage, the current set of players have blossomed and have gained experience from playing in the top five European leagues and the Champions League.

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Therefore, reaching the final means Croatia has finally realised its true potential and cannot be deemed a travesty. France, too, was one of the teams which failed to live up to potential in 2014, but by combining style with substance, it has reached its first World Cup final since 2006. Its route to the final has been tougher than Croatia’s, but the two teams are evenly-matched and have looked the real deal.

Sportstar puts together the player battles that might shape the FIFA World Cup 2018 final.

Sime Vrsaljko vs Lucas Hernandez

With both teams likely to sit deep when out of possession, the fullbacks will have a key role to play. Their overlapping runs and crosses into the box may just be what their team needs to unlock the opposition defence. Sime Vrsaljko and Lucas Hernandez have been good with their defensive and offensive games, both having an assist to show for their attacking endeavour.

 

Hernandez edges his Atletico Madrid rival on clean sheets (four to two). Given the lack of a fast, attacking winger on their flank, Vrsaljko and Hernandez can venture forward more often than they might otherwise, thereby contributing way more to their teams’ offensive play.

Kylian Mbappe vs Ivan Strinic

Another potentially decisive battle will unfold on the other flank, where Strinic, Croatia’s left-back, will be tasked with containing the seemingly unstoppable Mbappe. The 19-year-old Frenchman has been one of the players of the tournament. He has tormented pretty much every defence so far with his acceleration and trickery.

 

Belgium tried to neutralise Mbappe by doubling up on him — Eden Hazard dropped deep and combined with Jan Vertonghen to try stopping him in the semifinal — but ultimately failed. Strinic lacks pace to keep up with the fleet-footed Frenchman and the Croatia left-back cannot do without Ivan Perisic or Ante Rebic dropping deep and providing defensive support.

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With his three goals, Mbappe has shown that he carries a goal threat when he is in or around the penalty area, and his all-round game makes him the biggest threat to Croatia.

Luka Modric vs N'Golo Kante

The engine room for both teams is not short on star quality and, as the orchestrators of their respective teams, the likes of Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, Ivan Rakitic, and Antoine Griezmann are likely to make a decisive contribution. Modric is the creator-in-chief for Croatia and is likely to come up against N’Golo Kante as a No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10.

With his ball-carrying ability, vision to pick a pass and knack of dictating the tempo, the Real Madrid midfielder, who has dazzled at this World Cup, carries a significant threat to France. Equally though, Modric hasn’t encountered a better defensive midfielder than Kante at this World Cup. Kante’s tactical awareness to sniff danger and speed to nullify dangerous situations mean Modric has a massive challenge.

 

Modric’s defensive game is usually good, but he was found wanting against England when Dele Alli ran past him and invited him to make a challenge that resulted in conceding a free-kick, which led to the opening goal. Don’t forget, two of France’s last three goals have come from set-pieces.

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So, from Croatia’s perspective, conceding free-kicks in the defensive half will be a huge mistake. Croatia hasn’t defended the set-pieces well either, with Russia (through Mario Fernandes) harnessing a dead-ball situation in extra-time to force a penalty shootout in the quarterfinal clash.

Olivier Giroud vs Dejan Lovren

The Chelsea forward hasn’t scored a goal yet in five appearances, but his hold-up play is perfect for a team with players as quick as Mbappe and Griezmann, with their runs in behind the defensive line. If Les Bleus defends deep and plays a counter-attacking game, Giroud will come into his own, holding the ball up and picking out the runs of Mbappe and Griezmann.

 

Lovren, who has won an average of 5.3 aerials per match at this FIFA World Cup, needs to be on top of his game to win the individual tussle with Giroud. The Liverpool centre-back claimed after Croatia’s 2-1 win over England, that he is “one of the best defenders in the world.” And no stage is better than on Sunday against France to justify that tag.

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