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A loaded team that’s rarely had to exit second gear (France), and another that expended more energy than anyone in the tournament (Croatia), will meet for the 21st World Cup championship.

The matchup was set Wednesday, as Croatia outlasted England in extra time at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the venue for the title game. France was a favorite before the tournament and will remain so Sunday, in part because of its depth and talent, and in part because it’ll enter the final so much fresher. But the resilient and indefatigable Croats won’t be an easy out.
The strength of both sides is the force and flair of their midfields and flanks, where stars like France’s N’Golo Kanté and Kylian Mbappé, and Croatia’s Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić have put their stamp on this World Cup.

FRANCE’S STORY

Les Bleus came to Russia facing high expectations, especially after losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil. Nothing less than an appearance at the Luzhniki on Sunday would’ve been acceptable. And they came through, although not in the high-flying fashion that their talent and potential might’ve suggested. Coach Didier Deschamps has opted for a balanced and conservative approach, as France has gradually taken control of games and found a way to score only the goals it has needed. And several have come from more unlikely sources—center backs scored the quarterfinal and semifinal winners.
While the 19-year-old Mbappé has furnished some memorable, highlight-reel moments, for the most part France is more clinical than creative. But it’s been enough to book a trip to Moscow without much trouble, surviving a tough knockout-round road featuring Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium.

CROATIA’S STORY

While France has never looked like it was in too much trouble, Croatia seems to be in trouble constantly. The Vatreni were close to missing out on Russia altogether, as former coach Ante Čačić was fired just a couple days before their last scheduled qualifier. But they won, 2-0, at Ukraine to book a playoff place, then eased past Greece last November. The talent is there, starting with the versatile, cerebral and relentless Modrić, who’s been a massive part of Real Madrid’s three consecutive European titles. And Croatia looked fantastic during this World Cup’s group stage. But the knockout round has been an unprecedented grind, with inferior opponents (on paper) taking them to extra time in all three games.
Croatia now has played a full 90 minutes more than France. But it’s also been tested in a way Les Bleus have not. If Croatia can clear one more hurdle, it’ll make history. Only top-tier countries—the ones that develop talent and contend for titles consistently—have won the World Cup. No “golden generation” has ever done it. Croatia’s first such generation made the semis in ’98, but then it failed to qualify or get out of the group stage for 20 years. This is the second, and this is their chance.

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