- France are hot favourites to win the World Cup final
- Memories of Euro 2016 will haunt Didier Deschamps
- Olivier Giroud could be the decisive factor against Croatia
France go into today’s World Cup final as favourites with the ghosts of Euro 2016 swirling around them. Win and they will be anointed the best team in the world – and considered the best team of their era. A Euro 2016 final and a World Cup win is a compelling argument that they have been the outstanding side of the last four years. Lose, and they will dismissed as bottlers, chokers, and worse.
Croatia, by contrast, are surprise finalists. While Soccer Scribe has consistently tipped France for the final and ultimate glory, Croatia have overperformed in making the last four. This is an unexpected opportunity for a country of four million people.
However, it is not the free hit some are suggesting. Croatia do indeed have something to lose, too. The country is unlikely to ever reach a World Cup final again. The demographics are stacked against them. This really is it. Now or never.
So, this final is about this French generation taking its chance and the entire Croatian nation taking its. France has been here before – and will probably be here again at some point in the future. Didier Deschamps, however, knows his managerial career depends on today’s outcome. Players like Antoine Griezmann, Hugo Lloris, and Paul Pogba cannot endure a second final defeat as favourites. Portugal surprised them in Paris. This can happen in sport. But twice? That would seem more fundamental.
The Croats are battle-hardened warriors. Out on their feet for an hour in Moscow’s semi-final with England, they somehow found the reserves of energy to inflict their technical superiority on bright, but inexperienced opponents. France are a different proposition.
The Belgians, one of the best sides in this tournament, were dismissed with consummate ease in Saint Petersburg. Like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of its prey, France managed the Belgian threat to perfection once the initial Martinez thrust had failed to yield goals.
There’s a solidity and balance about France. But there’s also one rather inelegant square peg in a round hole that threatens to destabilise everything: Olivier Giroud.
Forwards who do not score are sometimes lauded as “hard workers” or “good for the team.” Giroud is currently damned with this faint praise. He had three glorious chances to bury Belgium on Tuesday and squandered each one more clumsily than the other.
Perhaps Giroud will come good at the Luzhniki. Perhaps his presence will allow the more gifted Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann to exploit the space he leaves behind. Perhaps. But there’s every chance that Giroud will cost his team the World Cup if he is the one that the chances fall to.
France have history here. They won a World Cup with a non-scoring striker before – the hapless Stephane Guivarc’h in 1998. Zinedine Zidane stepped up that day against Brazil. The ungainly Giroud plays as he looks: with more self-regard than the evidence really should allow. Today might be his day – but there’s a bigger chance it won’t be. That gives the Croatians hope.
In some ways, Mario Mandzukic is not a dissimilar player to Giroud – except that he’s actually quite good at scoring goals. His predatory instinct in Moscow exposed the dozy John Stones. Good players do that. They punish even the slightest mistake. If France had Mandzukic, this final wouldn’t even be a contest.
For all that, France should win. If Luka Modric can be quietened by N’Golo Kante, then it’s hard to see Croatia winning. Tiredness – and they must be exhausted – should also take a toll, especially if France score first.
However, if the Croats can get ahead, things will become fraught for France and then the margin of error for the non-scoring striker becomes even tighter. The expectation here is that France will win, and maybe win well – just as they did in the 1998 final. But Giroud will have a huge part to play in the outcome. Today really will be career defining for him – and his team as a result.