France vs Croatia: The Midfield Battle
"Football matches are won and lost in midfield" is one of the sport's oldest clichés, but clichés exist because more often than not they're true. The World Cup Final today should be no different where the central stars on the pitch are central to the gripping story.
One of the pre-tournament favourites, France, were lauded upon their arrival in Russia for their bristling variety of options in attack with Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Nabil Fekir and Ousmane Dembélé jostling for three places up front. However, as the tournament has raged on and France have improved with each game, it has been their midfield depth which has helped to dismiss sturdy opposition in the shape of Argentina, Uruguay & Belgium. Their thrilling and chaotic 4-3 win against Argentina was the first evidence that their attack was starting to find some chemistry, but against Uruguay, it was France's midfield mastery came to the fore.
N'Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba, both such different types of players but so complementary and balanced as a duo, outpowered the three Uruguayans opposing them in the quarterfinals. For quite a while in their semifinal against Belgium, Kanté and Pogba looked overawed and outnumbered against the physicality of Axel Wistel, Mousa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, but Pogba took control of the contest in the second half, bypassing his midfield opponents with his power and dribbling ability, as well as a desire to get his head up and pick out an early pass. Antoine Griezmann, nominally a striker or number 10, helped in this regard by dropping deeper and offering himself as a passing option.
Croatia is likely to emulate the Uruguayan approach with two playmakers, namely key star men Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, and screening defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozović. The latter and Inter Milan man, in particular, will have the job of closing down Griezmann when he drops into pockets of space to disrupt Croatia's rhythm at the base of midfield and pick out passes over the top of Croatia's back 4. The key man in the final for Croatia, as he has been all tournament, is skipper and playmaker Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid and Croatia number 10 is the heartbeat, the fulcrum, and the tempo-setter. With able support from Rakitić and Brozović, he can get on top of Pogba and Kanté but to do so he will have to be at his inimitable and effortless best.
Croatia's ability to come from behind in knockout matches has been largely down to their talented and tenacious midfield trio. Today they'll face an equally talented trio in Pogba, Kanté and to a lesser extent Griezmann, if/when Croatia start to dominate the central areas.
One of football's most popular adages will settle another score today. This showpiece final between France and Croatia will be contested in the centre of the park, and the world cannot wait to watch some of the finest midfielders on the planet do battle for football's most coveted prize.
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