Tuesday 20 November 2018

Comment: Kante and Pogba provide the perfect balance allowing France to go for jugular

France’s Paul Pogba attempts to dribble around Antoine Griezmann during training yesterday. Photo: David Vincent/AP
France’s Paul Pogba attempts to dribble around Antoine Griezmann during training yesterday. Photo: David Vincent/AP
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The presence of Croatia brings a new dimension to this World Cup final, a game that tends to read like football's version of a heavyweight title fight.

France v Croatia probably doesn't have the same ring to it as Brazil v Italy or Germany v Argentina, but that doesn't mean that the showpiece is diminished in any way. International football is changing.

Unfancied Greek and Portuguese sides have won European Championships in this century. Styles of play can vary and this Croatian team is a different animal but the moral of the story is that a united team really is capable of going a long way if they can hold it together under pressure.

Over a prolonged period of time, the major nations will still invariably pop up at the business end of competitions.

That said, there is scope for a team that has the potent combination of a fighting spirit and a generation of talented players to overcome the limitations of population and resources.

Croatia benefited from being on the weaker side of the draw but they won all of their group games to earn that honour.

Tomorrow afternoon, their coach Zlatko Dalic will stand in front of a dressing room containing individuals that are used to the pressure of games of substance.

Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic have all played in and won Champions League finals.

A clutch of their team-mates have experience of winning leagues and cups. This is the biggest game of their lives, but they are not out of place in a fixture of this magnitude.

France's roster is packed with marquee names, and their football history brings a touch of gravitas, yet Raphael Varane is the only Champions League winner that Didier Deschamps will name in his starting side.

There are players in his dressing room that will inevitably scale that summit, but they haven't got there yet and Les Bleus lost the Euro 2016 final that was build as a coronation. This is not a foregone conclusion; the fine margins will decide it.

THE MIDFIELD BATTLE

When Croatia got their act together on Wednesday, they bossed the midfield department with Jordan Henderson exposed to the movement and skills of Modric and Rakitic, aligned with the patience of the impressive Marcelo Brozovic who kept things ticking over and allowed the two stars to press on. France are an entirely different proposition in this department.

The backgrounds of N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba are dramatically different. Pogba was a child star who was snapped up by Manchester United as a teenager.

Kante was playing French second division football in his early 20s before a switch to Leicester that generated little fanfare at the time.

While Pogba strides through the post-match mixed zones with his PP branded earring, Kanta is low profile and understated. But their alliance brings out the best in each other and Blaise Matuidi - who is loved by Deschamps and should be fit to play - is very important here too.

Kante and Matuidi's diligence allows Pogba to break forward and his powerful bursts will ask physical questions of Croatia's clever operators. With Antoine Griezmann intelligently dropping back into the number 10 role, then France can be very strong through the centre and prevent Croatia from taking a grip on the game.

Both Russia and England succeeded in hurting Croatia through the middle when they played at a really high tempo and France have the ability to do that and maintain it across the duration with the range of talents they possess.

Croatia's only hope of victory is wrestling control of that area and they will need their wide players Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic to row in and compete.

THE MBAPPE FACTOR

There were spells in the England game where Croatia's rearguard were clearly worried by the prospect of Raheem Sterling catching them on the break.

Indeed, while they eventually gained control and took more risks against a side that was running short on ideas, they defended quite deep in the early stages in an attempt to stifle him and that only succeeded in leaving gaps for others.

Kylian Mbappe will set them a real dilemma as he has the ability to kill them on the counter if France opt to absorb some pressure and then strike quickly.

The one scenario where the teams really cancel each other out is if Croatia drop off too because of that fear and a cagey affair ensues. But Mbappe demonstrated against Belgium that he's far from a one-trick pony and his clever assists for players running off him outfoxed Roberto Martinez's side. He's not quite unstoppable but if he performs then he can make this final his own.

PERISIC v PAVARD

The interesting thing about Didier Deschamps' preferred full-backs Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez is that they are actually both more comfortable as central defenders. They are young and energetic and well able to provide an attacking outlet, but they are not functioning in their natural position.

Pavard was given a torrid time by Eden Hazard in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday when he was left one-on-one against the Chelsea attacker. France's midfield players worked hard on helping him out as the game progressed. This is still an area that Croatia will look to exploit courtesy of Perisic who showcased his quality in the comeback against England.

GIROUD v LOVREN

This might not be a specific head to head as Croatia also have the powerful Domagoj Vida, a defender that is now thought to be on Liverpool's radar.

He would link up there with the much-maligned Dejan Lovren, a player who still managed to become a figure of mirth in the aftermath of Wednesday because of his declaration that he's one of the best defenders in Europe.

Lovren is an asset to Croatia, much as he is prone to errors. Giroud can empathise with his opponent when it comes to knowing what it's like to be the butt of jokes, but the Chelsea attacker has influenced his side's run without getting on the scoresheet.

He's a threat in the air, and a foil for the gifted players around him. If Croatia's central defenders can succeed in shutting him down, they've got half a chance.

THE SET-PIECE

It's been a thrilling tournament, but it's also functioned as a triumph for the set-piece -- illustrating the simple value of getting the basics right. France broke the deadlock against Uruguay when Varane rose highest to meet a free-kick. His central defensive partner Samuel Umtiti did the business against Belgium from a corner.

They efficiently closed out both games, but it was the ability to make the most of dead-ball scenarios that gave them the ticket to the latter stages. Croatia nearly went out to Russia because of a late concession from a cross, and it was notable how they tightened up in that area against an England team that had struck nine from set pieces - the highest return from any World Cup competitor since 1966.

France should win this match. They have the deeper squad and the suspicion is that they might just have another gear if they find themselves in a bother. But don't be surprised if the money shot is a player rising to dispatch the match-winning header.

Verdict: France 2 Croatia 1

P8.kante1.jpg
1: Croatia’s back four (highlighted) sat deep in the early stages against England and the space was exploited with the midfield slow to track Dele Alli’s run that led to Kieran Trippier’s free-kick
P8.kante2.jpg
2: Harry Kane’s miss came from another situation where England found space between the back four and midfield with Croatia applying a higher line as the game developed and their
P8.kante3.jpg
3: Antoine Griezmann hasn’t hit top form but his movement occupies the mind of rival midfielders and allows France’s central players to press on with this move against Uruguay with Pogba feeding Tolisso for a shot on goal
P8.kante4.jpg
4: Another example of French movement that will hurt Croatia if they start like they did against England. Griezmann drops deep to distract Belgium and Mbappe drifts centrally. Matuidi is free but this move ends with Mbappe’s brilliant flick for Giroud who cannot convert

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