Where will the WC final be won and lost?
13 Jul 2018, 23:23 ( 3 days ago)
We identify five key battles that could decide the outcome of Sunday's World Cup final between France and Croatia.
1. Benjamin Pavard vs. Ivan Perisic
Benjamin Pavard has been one of the revelations of the tournament in the right-back position for France. The Stuttgart player has been rock-solid in defence while also carrying a threat going forward; his scintillating volley with the outside of his right boot against Argentina is a contender for goal of the tournament.
The 22-year-old will need to be on his game against left-winger Ivan Perisic, who hit top form in Croatia's 2-1 victory over England by scoring his side's second-half equalizer and setting up the winner for Mario Mandzukic.
2. Raphael Varane vs. Mario Mandzukic
Raphael Varane has arguably been the best central defender of the World Cup, forming a near-impregnable partnership with Samuel Umtiti. The 25-year-old put in a faultless display in his team's semifinal victory over Belgium, using his speed, aerial prowess and positional awareness to repel countless Red Devil attacks, particularly in the second half.
His chief task on Sunday will be to quell the threat posed by Mario Mandzukic. Croatia's Juventus striker has not been in the best of form in Russia but his opportunistic winner against England shows that he doesn't need many chances to make a difference.
3. N'Golo Kante/Paul Pogba vs. Luka Modric/Ivan Rakitic
Paul Pogba and, particularly, N'Golo Kante have held France's midfield together with their tireless box-to-box running, clever distribution and willingness to track back. At no stage of this World Cup will those qualities be more important for Les Bleus than on Sunday against a midfield boasting Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Modric has been superb in this tournament, relishing a mainly free-roaming roll in front of Marcelo Brozovic to be his side's chief creative weapon. Kante, Paul Pogba, Varane and Umtiti will be wary not to afford Modric space anywhere near the final third, where his incisive passing and powerful right foot could lead to France's undoing.
4. Kylian Mbappe vs. Dejan Lovren
Kylian Mbappe, 19, has only needed a few moments of magic to confirm his status as a new star of the game. In the round of 16 he became the first teenager since Pele in 1958 to score twice in the same World Cup match as his side beat Argentina 4-3.
While he didn't score in either of France's last two matches, the Paris Saint-Germain forward menaced the defences of Uruguay and Belgium with his speed and trickery. Croatia's central defensive pairing of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida aren't renowned for their pace and will hope that Mbappe is given few opportunities to run at them, particularly on the counter-attack.
5. Hugo Lloris vs. Danijel Subasic
In a World Cup of fine margins it wouldn't surprise to see Sunday's result hinge on a goalkeeper's save - or error. France keeper Hugo Lloris has brushed aside an indifferent season for Tottenham Hotspur with some fine performances at this World Cup, including clean sheets in their past two matches.
Croatia's Danijel Subasic has been no less impressive and was his team's hero in successive penalty shootout victories over Denmark and Russia. There is every chance that the keeper who can best hold his nerve on Sunday will be the one on the winning side.