France defeated Croatia 4-2 in a highly entertaining FIFA World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday.
An own goal by Mario Mandzukic, an Antoine Griezmann penalty and unstoppable strikes from Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe were enough to win France their second World Cup – despite goals from Ivan Perisic and a strike at the right end of the pitch by Mandzukic, after an uncharacteristic howler by Hugo Lloris.
France were in their third final in six World Cups, while Croatia were in their first major tournament final. The French were the overwhelming favourites and had enjoyed a far less arduous route to the final than the Croats, who had been taken to penalties twice and had needed extra time to edge England out in the semi-final.
However, the underdogs dominated the opening exchanges of the final, looking sharper in every position and putting France under immense pressure, especially down the flanks.
If Perisic had showed greater composure when he received a raking pass from Ivan Rakitic, the Croats could even had taken a shock early lead. Perisic might also have done better with his cross when he was set free down the left.
Croatia were left to rue their failure to turn their early dominance into goals, as France opened the scoring completely against the run of play in the 18th minute. Griezmann played a dangerous free kick into the Croatian penalty area, which Mandzukic could only head into his own net.
It was a brutal sucker punch for the Vatreni, especially seeing as the free kick was questionable at best. Yet it was no coincidence that the goal came moments after Mbappe’s first dangerous-looking run. But for a superb tackle by Domagoj Vida soon after the goal, Mbappe would have been ideally placed to double France’s lead.
Instead, Croatia equalised in the 28th minute, courtesy of a fierce drive by Perisic from just inside the penalty area, after France had failed to deal with a free kick.
It was no less than Croatia deserved, having been the better team from the first whistle. Unfortunately for the Croats, they were dealt another cruel blow when Perisic was penalised for a handball in the Croatian penalty area.
The referee awarded a penalty after being invited to review the incident by VAR. Replays did appear to show that Perisic’s arm had moved towards the ball, but it still seemed a harsh decision.
In any case, Griezmann duly converted the penalty, and France restored their undeserved lead in the 38th minute.
Still Croatia continued to attack with menace, and Dejan Lovren, Mandzukic and Vida all had presentable chances to equalise. France must have been extremely relieved to be leading at half time.
Whatever happened in the second half, this match was already more open and entertaining than any other World Cup final in the last 30 years – not that this was exactly difficult.
Croatia started the second half just as they had ended the first – on the front foot. Lloris was forced into a fine save by Ante Rebic, and the France captain had to be alert again soon afterwards, coming out of his area to chest down a dangerous long ball.
The French looked extremely ragged in midfield, where Luka Modric and Rakitic were utterly dominant – and yet Les Bleus could have gone 3-1 up when Mbappe beat Vida, only to be thwarted by Danijel Subasic.
Shortly afterwards, France did extend their lead in the 59th minute, courtesy of a superb strike by Pogba. The Manchester United man started the move with a sumptuous pass to release Mbappe, who fed Griezmann. The Atletico Madrid striker then set up Pogba, who fired home an unstoppable shot after his first effort was blocked.
It was extremely harsh on Croatia, but it was a goal worthy of winning any World Cup. It wasn’t France’s last one, though – Mbappe fired home from outside the box in the 65th minute, leaving Subasic helpless as his shot found the bottom corner of the net. It was the 19-year-old’s fourth goal of the tournament.
Still France couldn’t rest, as Lloris gifted Croatia their second goal in the 69th minute. The Tottenham keeper tried to dribble round Mandzukic, only for the Juventus striker to poke the ball into the net.
Lloris’ bizarre error seemed to galvanize Croatia, and Rakitic came close with a low shot after excellent work from Modric. To their immense credit, the Croats showed great persistence right to the end, but it was all in vain.
So France have won the World Cup, but Croatia can go home with their heads held high. With a little more luck, they could easily have lifted their first major trophy on Sunday.