The summer of football is set to close in style as France take on Croatia in the World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday afternoon.
Russia 2018 has been full of upsets, brilliant goals, counter-attacks and VAR debate over the last four weeks, as 32 nations from all four corners of the globe came together for the biggest World Cup ever.
It has been all of that and more as we have been treated to a tournament which was as exciting and enjoyable as anyone could have predicted.
There have been plenty of firsts in Russia: Panama scored their first ever World Cup goals, Manuel Neuer was punished for playing sweeper-keeper for the first time in the dying moments against Japan, Kieran Trippier picked the biggest game of his career to score his first England goal and Ally McCoist gave the British public a history lesson they never thought they’d get in his first stint as a World Cup commentator.
As many of the big names fell by the wayside, France became the only pre-tournament favourite to deliver on the promise showed by the strength and depth of their star-studded squad.
Holders Germany fell at the first hurdle as Sweden and Mexico progressed from their group, Spain were edged out on penalties in the last 16 by Russia after a shambolic series of events left them scrambling for a new manager just days before their first game, while Brazil were defeated at the quarter final stage by a brilliant Belgium side in full flow.
With household names such as Anthony Martial, Alexandre Lacazette and Dimitri Payet left at home – proving just how strong French national football is at the moment – Les Bleus were tipped by many to build on their positive exploits at Euro 2016.
It is one thing to be tipped before a ball has been kicked and another to be lining up as World Cup finalists though. France deserve huge credit for the way they brushed aside Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium after emerging from the group stages.
Traditionally, to win the World Cup you need to get the better of at least two world class sides on the way to the final – France have achieved that and more with the scalps of three of the most talented teams on the planet.
In Kylian Mbappe France have the most exciting prospect in the world and he has not failed to deliver on the biggest stage of all. The big favourite to be crowned Player of the Tournament, Mbappe will top off an incredible year if he is on the winning side on Sunday.
At the centre of most of what France do going forward, Mbappe’s pace, power and skill has left pundits and viewers awestruck with the maturity and ability of a player who is still to celebrate his 20th birthday.
A man of the match performance in the game of the tournament so far, France’s 4-3 victory over Argentina in the quarter-finals, was followed up by a brilliant showing in the semi-final against Belgium. Whatever happens on Sunday, Mbappe is sure to be at the centre of the world game for years to come.
Croatia’s route to the final has been markedly different to their opponents. A strong start to the tournament saw them take three wins from three group games, including a 3-0 hammering of Argentina on a night that nothing could go wrong for Zlatko Dalić’s team.
Since then the Croats have had their work cut out to keep the World Cup dream alive as their side of the draw seemed to open up favourably for one of the ‘lesser’ nations to make their mark on the tournament.
Victories in the last 16 and quarter final against Denmark and Russia required extra time and penalties to set up a semi-final meeting with England. After 240 minutes of football there were doubts over Croatia’s ability to go the distance in the country’s first World Cup semi-final since defeat to Sunday’s opponents France in the semi-finals of the 1998 competition.
Inspired second half performances from Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić took the game to extra time once more, with Croatia only the second team in World Cup history to have played 120 minutes in three consecutive matches at a single tournament – England in 1990 the only other to have done the same.
Talismanic striker Mario Mandžukić delivered the winner when it mattered in the second period of extra time to break English hearts and send Croatia to their first ever World Cup final.
An achievement that will undoubtedly go down as the greatest in Croatian sporting history, regardless of the outcome against France, the Croats have showed smaller countries around the world exactly what is possible in football.
With a population of just 4 million, the odds were stacked heavily against Croatia going into the tournament. However a combination of determination, ability and just the right amount of luck means they have a straight fight to be crowned world champions this weekend.
There is little doubt that France go into the final as favourites – their run to get there gives them this title deservedly – but Croatia have done more than enough to prove their worth. If the Croats can get Modrić, Perišić and Rakitić firing alongside Mandžukić we are in for a hugely entertaining game.
In a tournament which has been full of scalps and surprises, Croatia will be hopeful that there is one last upset on the cards in Moscow on Sunday afternoon.
Enjoy the game!