France vs. Croatia: Which side will come out on top in the World Cup final?
It has all come down to this. France vs. Croatia in the World Cup final is the culmination of a stunning tournament in Russia, but who will lift the trophy in Moscow?
Jonathan Johnson (France) and Aleks Holiga (Croatia) look ahead to Sunday's final.
Why should neutrals root for your team?
Jonathan Johnson: Twenty years on from their 1998 World Cup success and almost two years from their defeat in the Euro 2016 final, France are ready to add a second star to their badge at the third attempt. Boasting the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba, Les Bleus are brimming with talent, and victory in Russia could birth a new dynasty. It might not have been pretty at times, but Didier Deschamps' men have shown great unity to get this far. A Moscow final against deserving Croatia -- 20 years after their World Cup semifinal encounter -- could finally coax that elusive explosive display out of the French.
Aleks Holiga: Croatia is the best success story of this World Cup. With its 4 million people, it is also the smallest nation to qualify for the final since Uruguay did it in the competition's early history.
They have made it on the back of three comebacks in a row and three consecutive extra times -- two of which ended in penalties -- en route to the final, showing remarkable guts and psychological, as well as physical, stability.
They also have made it despite all the chaos that is Croatian football, and their success has the potential to rebuild some burnt bridges in a divided nation. They are the underdog here but won't act like one in the final.
JJ: Griezmann vs. Ivan Rakitic, Raphael Varane vs. Mario Mandzukic, Mbappe vs. Ivan Strinic, Olivier Giroud vs. Dejan Lovren, as well as Benjamin Pavard vs. Ivan Perisic will all be important battles at Luzhniki Stadium. However, N'Golo Kante up against Luka Modric is shaping up to be the most critical.
Kante was key in silencing Argentina's Lionel Messi and Belgium's Eden Hazard in the last 16 and semifinals, respectively. Neutralising Modric's threat may well win the game -- and the title -- for France.
AH: With both midfields densely packed and able to cancel each other, key battles could be fought on the flanks. While Blaise Matuidi could deny Sime Vrsaljko the space to advance and overlap with his winger -- something that was very important for Croatia against England -- we should see more space and more action on the other side. Ivan Perisic or Ante Rebic (they swap sides fairly regularly) could find themselves in a few promising one-on-ones with Benjamin Pavard, but he will have to be extremely careful not to let Ivan Strinic be exposed behind his back. So while I think Croatia's best attacking chance might be against Pavard, it could come at a great expense in defence.
JJ: Sunday's final will be the first of potentially many for Mbappe, so the wonder-kid's ability to handle the occasion and get the better of Strinic will be important. Les Bleus' No. 10 will be keen to add to his three-goal haul and could do so against former Monaco teammate Danijel Subasic in the Croatia goal.
However, perhaps even more important, the French could use another stunning performance from captain Hugo Lloris. The skipper made vital saves against Uruguay and Belgium en route to the final, and he has been an unsung hero in this World Cup campaign. Croatia have goals in them, so Lloris needs to be alert and in match-winning form again.
AH: Except when he's taking penalties, which is something he probably shouldn't be doing anymore, Luka Modric is always on top of his game or very near it. He has been incredible and fully deserves the Golden Ball should Croatia go on and win the title. But if that's going to happen, he will need Ivan Rakitic to step up once again and help him out by providing a stellar supporting performance. This World Cup is actually the first time that the key skills of the team's two playmakers have been used in a complementary way, although Rakitic's form has been less consistent. Croatia need him at his best here.
JJ: While Modric is undoubtedly Croatia's metronome and Rakitic adds greater power to the central midfield unit, the French should be most worried about the threat from wide. Pavard, as good as he was going forward, suffered at times against Belgium's Hazard defensively, and Perisic could exploit any of the Frenchman's lapses.
Also, on Croatia's right, Sime Vrsaljko likes to get forward and will test Lucas Hernandez in an attempt to breach France's defence from either side.
AH: Kylian Mbappe is a fantastic, infinitely exciting player, and this World Cup is turning into his coming-out party on the international level. Didier Deschamps has created the ideal context for him to flourish within his system of choice. Mbappe needs space to thrive and fully exploit his elite abilities, and I'm sure Zlatko Dalic is aware of that -- he will have been preparing the team to attempt to deny Mbappe that space as much as possible. The outcome of the game may well depend on how well conceived and well executed that plan to stop Mbappe is.
JJ: Les Bleus to win this one narrowly over 90 minutes and earn a second star for their crest -- 2-1 to the French.
AH: With all three of their knockout clashes going into extra time, Croatia have accumulated an extra 90 minutes of football compared to France. There will be some tired legs, and that could prove decisive. But should fatigue really be that much of a factor if every player is so adrenaline-driven that he'd give his best even if one of his limbs was missing?
Now that they've achieved what had seemed impossible and are already heroes, they are prepared to die with their boots on. When your country reaches a World Cup final, you simply have to believe they can win it, even if all reasoning and logic tell you otherwise. So, here goes: Croatia to win on penalties.