The 1998 winners France and Croatia, who debuted at the same tournament hosted by France, will contest the finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup inside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday.
It will be a repeat of their first meeting in the semi-finals of the said tournament when right wingback Lilian Thuram inspired France with a pair of goals in a 2-1 victory on their way to claiming their only title to date.
In semi-final action on Tuesday France tamed the much talked about Belgium 1-0 on a Samuel Umtiti second half header, which proved too much for Roberto Martiniez’ so-called “golden generation” of players. Meanwhile, Croatia rallied from a Kieran Trippier fifth-minute free kick set-back with goals from Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic in the second half of extra time for their 2-1 triumph to become the second smallest nation to play in a World Cup final behind only Uruguay, the 1930 and 1950 winners.
The four semi-finalists played for the right to contest the Championship game after intriguing quarter-final victories.
France blanked Uruguay 2-0; Belgium somehow survived against Brazil in a 2-1 result; England turned back Sweden 2-0 and Croatia outlasted hosts Russia on penalties after playing to a 2-2 result in full and extra time in a riveting affair.
Didier Deschamps’ France had emerged top of Group C with two wins and a draw before outscoring Lionel Messi’s troubled Argentina 4-3 in their round of 16 match.
They are stocked with young and exciting talent in every department, even as they struggle to convince with a definitive offering during the tournament.
Belgium showed cracks
Belgium last made the semi-finals in Mexico in 1986 when a pair of Diego Maradona goals ended their interest in the competition. Since then they have seen the emergence of high quality players such as Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, among others, ply their trade in the biggest arenas in Europe.
The Russia World Cup was viewed by many as the breakout tournament for a group of players referred to as a “golden generation”. And they began the tournament like a house on fire registering three wins from as many games in the preliminary round of Group G with 3-0 and 5-2 wins over Panama and Tunisia, respectively, before closing out the group with a 1-0 win over England.
However, against Japan in their round of 16 match they displayed cracks in their armor, even as they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a last-minute goal to edge the Asians 3-2, coming from two goals down in the second half.
Lady luck deserted Brazil
But if they were exposed against Japan, they were made to look rather ordinary against Brazil, even as they ran out 2-1 winners. Their victory owed much more to Brazil’s profligacy in front of goal and lady luck, than to their own excellence with and without the ball.
Brazil carved out 27 shots (nine) on target, while Belgium mustered only nine shots, including three on target. Courtois was easily their man of the match, a clear sign that the defensive side of their game left a lot to be desired, and thus left him exposed more than they would have wanted.
And even though they were the top scoring team, thanks to the presence of Panama and Tunisia in the preliminary phase, their attackers were largely kept at bay, as apart from the two goals, one of which was an own goal by the way, Brazil’s goalkeeper Alisson had very few anxious moments.
It was therefore no surprise when France sent them packing in the semi-finals, a defeat which further exposed their limitations in both attack and defense.
On the other hand, Brazil’s defense gave up very few chances, as evidenced by the three goals conceded throughout their campaign, while at the other end of the pitch
the South Americans were uncharacteristically extremely inefficient with their chances.
Croatia displayed character and poise
On the other side of the draw Croatia were forced to display character, poise, composure and resilience, having been taken all the way to penalties against Sweden and the hosts in an energy-sapping environment.
And after two 120-minute knockout matches, the Croats exposed England for what they really were, a bunch of average players who rode their luck and almost got to the final.
Their “route one” approach when Croatia’s more technically sound players wrested control of midfield spoke volumes of the lack of real world class talent assembled by Gareth Southgate.
They were gifted the perfect start with Trippier’s early goal and could not have asked for anything better, but seemed to lack players who could keep possession of the ball and force the Croats, who had registered many miles on their legs, to chase ball and expedite fatigue.
But instead goalkeeper Jordan Pickford resorted to thumping long balls down field in a performance akin to the ugly days when England were notorious for employing route one football.This style of play encouraged Croatia and provided for them a window to get back into the game and before long their superior technical ability put them in the driver’s seat and the rest is now history.
Missed grand opportunity
England missed a grand opportunity to advance to the World Cup Final for the first time since winning the title on home soil in 1966.
Everything seemed to be falling into place for them on that side of the draw, with defending champions Germany knocked out at the preliminary stage, and 2010 winners Spain unable to overcome the gritty Russians in the round of 16 match-up.
The English fans, skeptical at the outset, had started to believe that the World Cup was “coming home”, but instead it will be the players who will be going home much like all but one of their teams, trophy less.
And that is to the joy of arguably most football fans.
Croatia look to avenge against France
Now the small nation of Croatia, who seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, will look to avenge their 1-2 loss to France in the semi-finals in 1998. In four friendly meetings since, France have won 3-0 and 2-0 in 1999 and 2000, respectively, while drawing 2-2 in 2004 and 0-0 in 2011.
Will they finally register their first and most important victory against France on Sunday? Only time will tell.