Tuesday 16 July 2019

Clinical Les Bleus do just enough again

France 4 Croatia 2

Paul Pogba scores France’s third goa. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Paul Pogba scores France’s third goa. Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Daniel McDonnell in Moscow

It was the World Cup final that the competition deserved.

A match with all of the elements that makes football the most popular sport on the planet, and an occasion which delivered the emotions that illustrate why the international game will always matter.

This was more thrilling than technical, an enjoyably flawed rollercoaster that offered a refreshing contrast from the stale deciders that we have come to expect, the nailbiters notable for just a handful of major incidents. Russia 2018 will be remembered for different reasons. In Russia, bizarre became the new normal.

For the big day, there were no Mexican waves or Icelandic claps. Pitch invasions served a political purpose, yet they were merely getting in the way of the entertainment. The thunderstorms were a fitting accompaniment to a final packed with flashpoints.

France's midfielder Paul Pogba celebrates with Samuel Umtiti after lifting ther World Cup winners' medals. Photo: Getty Images
France's midfielder Paul Pogba celebrates with Samuel Umtiti after lifting ther World Cup winners' medals. Photo: Getty Images

There were mistakes aplenty, from players and officials. A lot of people came here praying that a man from Argentina would have a big say in the final but they were thinking of Lionel Messi - not the referee Nestor Pitana.

VAR had its say here, and it sat uncomfortably, even if the divergence of opinions over the decision to punish Ivan Perisic for handball again emphasised why no system will be absolutely perfect.

But there was a chaotic aspect to the series of events that gave France the initiative which was in keeping with the whole piece. The business end of international football may not reach the quality of the club equivalent but, for high stakes drama, there is no comparison.

When the glitter had settled, there was joy in evidence at both ends of the pitch. The beaten Croatian squad posed for a group shot in front of their own supporters; they have emerged as winners from this experience too.

However, the invasion of Didier Deschamps' post match press conference by his jubilant players, a three-pronged assault that culminated with a champagne shower to rival the downpour from the heavens, was followed by the winning coach's frank assessment of his side's place in history.

The finality of the fine margins. Deschamps was asked how he would want his team to be remembered.

French striker Antoine Griezmann kisses the World Cup after the final. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
French striker Antoine Griezmann kisses the World Cup after the final. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

"What should people remember?" he replied. "France is the world champions. It means we did things better than the others."

It was an effective method of summing it up. They are the winners that always just did enough, and the decider offered further evidence of that.

France came out of the blocks with a conservative plan, and played poorly for half of the game and the heartbeat of their side - N'Golo Kante - was hooked early after enduring a shocker.

And yet they ultimately wound up as comfortable winners with only a comical concession following a howler from Hugo Lloris adding a wholly unnecessary degree of suspense to the final quarter.


It was deeply unsatisfying that they were given a half-time lead by the debatable VAR intervention that forced Pitana to review the connection between ball and Perisic's hand in the penalty area. Antoine Griezmann, who duly slotted away the penalty kick, admitted he had been taken by surprise.

Referee Nestor Pitana gives instructions during the final. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Referee Nestor Pitana gives instructions during the final. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

He was also shocked when his earlier free-kick was nodded into his own net by Mario Mandzukic, a deadlock breaker that went completely against the run of play. The well-taken Perisic equaliser felt like a wrong being righted, but the feelings of injustice soon returned.

At that stage, Croatia had delivered all of the goals, all of the positive football, and all of the atmosphere with Les Bleus' following dwarfed by the underdogs.

But France did enough after the break to show why they are world champions. They were given a nudge in the right direction, yet they seized the day. Kylian Mbappe revelled in space and Paul Pogba executed the pass of the tournament to find the teenager's surging run.

By the time the ball made its way properly into the penalty area, Pogba was on hand to seize on a hesistant block from Luka Modric to dispatch a beautiful curling effort beyond the static Danijel Subasic.

If the first half was about the majesty of Modric and the superb Ivan Rakitic, the second half was about Pogba emerging from his shell when unlikely star Steven Nzonzi ended Kante's struggles.

Croatia lost their composure and Mbappe stuck another one in before they could even take a breath. Champions show no mercy. In the round of 16, France killed off Argentina in a similarly efficient period packed with pace and power.

Their hitherto excellent rearguard was given much more problems by a Croatian side that never gave up hope, with Mandzukic's attitude drawing the Loris Karius impression from Lloris that put a fairer look on the scoreline. All France cared about was the result.

Their performance against Belgium was far superior, yet they still found the way to win - a contrast from the Euro 2016 decider in home soil where they somehow found a way to lose.

For Deschamps, the foundations for their success were laid by a new found mental fortitude.

"We managed to have the right state of mind for the tournament and it's a phrase I repeat all of the time - that we should never give up.

"There are imperfections. We didn't do everything right but we do have those mental and psychological qualities that were vital for this World Cup."

Other big guns failed. A winning camp always looks like a happy camp, but the players that stormed into Deschamps' victory speech were chanting the manager's name. The manager will tell the group to not worry about how the outside world views them. All that matters is the medal they will bring home; as a hero of 1998 he has already walked in these shoes.

"These 23 players will be linked together forever no matter what happens," he asserted, "From now on, things will be different. They are world champions. I don't want to underestimate any other titles but world champions? When you are a professional football player, you are never above that."

The topless Pogba, performing his own dance routine on the podium before sheepishly cleaning up the mess afterwards, was celebrating like a man that was living through something that was bigger than anything he had achieved in his lucrative career.

There was an authentic childlike glee that was natural, not rehearsed or crafted by a PR team. The feeling that money cannot buy.

Croatia's coach Zlatko Dalic had already bought into the positive vibes. He was dignified and diplomatic, refusing to dwell on the penalty that swung the pendulum in favour of Paris.

"With respect to VAR, when it goes in your favour then it's good and when it doesn't go in your favour then it's bad," he said, with a shrug.

Dalic was non-committal on his future. He was only appointed as a stopgap last October, when Croatia needed a win away in Ukraine to make a play-off. Their journey from that point has been extraordinary.

"On our bus, there is a slogan which says 'Small country with big dreams,' he said. "If you work hard with good players, then you have to believe that anything is possible.

"It's true that many things have to fall into place but that's a great message for small countries. You have to have a dream and ambitions and then follow those dreams. You should never stop believing."

He left the room to applause, an honour usually reserved for the victor. It was that kind of day. The underdogs were inspirational, but a performance that exceeded their own expectations still wasn't enough for the trophy.

There would be no fairytale ending. The best team won, turning it on when it mattered in a World Cup that was hard to turn off.

Irish Independent

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