Only a pair of games remain at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, after this we’ll have to wait another four years for World Cup action. 1998 Champions and 2006 finalists France take on Croatia, a side playing in their first ever World Cup final after a third place finish in 1998. The stars are known, and the final promises to be a thrilling one. Our panelists offer up their previews and predictions. As a bonus we’ll also take a look at the Belgium vs England third place game between the losing semifinalists.
Final: France vs Croatia (Sunday in Moscow)
Steen Kirby: This is Croatia’s best ever team, while France is back in their first final since 2006 and hoping to do one better than that storied team accomplished. Croatia has been clutch, decisive, and tactically sound having won a series of matches in extra time or penalties to reach this stage. France played a bit cautiously early in the tournament, only to move through the gears in the knockout stages. France kept a clean sheet their last 2 games while Croatia surrendered goals against Russia and England. This will be a close game, but Varane and the French backline given them enough of an edge to suggest they can stifle Croatia, and then wear them down to generate a result, a result that leads to lifting the trophy for 2018. France 1-0
John Bava: It’s only fitting that the championship match of what’s widely being hailed as the greatest World Cup of all-time features the tournament’s two best teams. France started off slowly in the group stage but progressed through the knockout stage in fairly convincing fashion. Croatia, meanwhile, showcased an unprecedented amount of grit and determination to make it this far. All three of their knockout round games went 120 minutes with two needing a penalty shootout to determine the winner. Against England, they became the first team in World Cup history to win a semifinal without the benefit of spot kicks in a game they initially trailed. Though Les Bleus boast a championship-winning confluence of in-form attackers and a dialed in goalkeeper, Croatia do as well. And based on the manner of how they made it to their first-ever World Cup final, this squad simply feels like a team of destiny. Croatia 2-1
Kartik Krishnaiyer: This World Cup Final could be a classic capstone to what has been a great tournament – one of the best of our lifetimes. France has an incredible amount of attacking talent and pace with Kylian Mbappe helping to open defenses up with his mazy and pacey runs. The midfield is anchored by the indispensable N’Golo Kante.
Croatia counters with the best midfield in the tournament – Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are two of the best in the world while Ivan Perisic is arguably the most technically gifted winger in the tournament. The match might come down to which backline holds up better. But both sides have key players shielding the back four, Kante for France and Marcelo Brozovic for Croatia.
The coaching matchup might prove key. Here only one winner- Didier Deschamps seems to if anything to have held France back in the last few major tournaments with his selections while Zlatko Dalic has been the best tactical manager of this World Cup.
It’s hard to see France losing a second successive final but Croatia’s midfield keeps impressing. France’s youth and fresher legs might be an advantage early on but as the match wears on, I’d expect Croatia’s midfield to assert its dominance. France’s back line hasn’t looked great when put under pressure in this tournament.
Once again Croatia will play the full 120 minutes and for the third time they’ll go to penalties. For the second time in four World Cups, France will lose on penalties. Croatia 3-2 after penalties
Lukas Weese: Here it is. The Final of the World Cup is upon us. France is in its third World Cup in the last 20 years, which is an impressive feat. They have used their deep attack, mixed with a strong defensive core, to get to this point, after defeating Belgium 1-0 and neutralizing their front three of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard. Croatia has relied on their tenacious attitude and formidable midfield to win their last three knockout stage games in extra time or penalties, including the 2-1 victory over England in the semifinals. While Croatia’s stars Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mario Mandzukic have enough talent and creativity to create scoring opportunities, it will be tremendously difficult against this French team.
France is led by Greizmann, Giroud, Pogba, Lemar, Dembele, Fekir and Mbappe, who continue to be a force dictating possession and creating scoring opportunities on set pieces and in the box. Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi will not provide the Croatian midfielders a lot of space to move the ball into the offensive zone. While it will be close for the first half, I just think France is too deep offensively and defensively to let Croatia run all over them in this match. Their methodical performance will once again be apparent, giving the French their first World Cup since 1998. France 2-0
Third Place Game: Belgium vs England (Saturday in St. Petersburg)
Steen: This match could go either way given these are talented teams that just suffered heartbreaks in the semifinals, England perhaps more so than Belgium. Harry Kane and Romelo Lukaku have had great tournaments overall but ghosted in the semifinals, contributing to their sides going down in defeat. If they play the better striker should prevail, but there is a also a significant chance we’ll see the reserves take to the pitch like Jamie Vardy and Michy Batshuayi.
Belgium’s golden generation, while disappointed, would love to finish third, something they have never managed (previously they finished 4th in 1986 and will match that regardless). England has also never finished third, and a result for this young side will give them confidence going forward. Given Belgium won the first game, they should do enough to manage to win the second, especially after England bungled the second half of their semifinal. Belgium 2-1
John: For the second time in this tournament, Belgium and England meet under somewhat anticlimactic circumstances. The two teams had already clinched a spot in the knockout round when they played each other in the Group G finale which gave them a chance to rest players. It’s likely that both Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate do the same with their lineups for Saturday’s third-place game. That said, expect both Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku to start. The former will certainly want to maintain his lead in the golden boot race while the latter can equal Kane’s six-goal haul with a brace in St. Petersburg. Since 1978, this game has combined for no fewer than three goals so it should be wide open. Belgium 3-2
Kartik: Two sides very familiar with each other as the core of Belgium’s squad competes in the Premier League where England’s entire roster plays club football. For a second time in this competition, these two face off with little on the line – the previous meeting a 1-0 Belgium win was capped off by Adnan Januzaj’s wonder strike from distance. With little to play for and both sets of players anxious to get back to their clubs following semifinals defeats, expect an open match with lots of reserves getting time. Belgium has better depth and likely will emerge victorious. Belgium 1-0
Lukas: A game for third place between two disappointed teams, wishing they were playing in the World Cup Final. Belgium lost 1-0 to France while England lost a heartbreaking game to Croatia in extra time. I think Belgium is a deeper team, will dictate the possession early and score to defeat England, securing third place at this World Cup. Belgium 2-0