Croatia set up final showdown with France

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Antoine Griezmann (left), Paul Pogba, and Kylian Mbappe will be a tough test for Croatia’s defence. Reuters

MOSCOW (Agencies) – France’s march into the World Cup final has dominated the nation’s headlines, with many already predicting a second title for “Les Bleus” who face Croatia on Sunday.

“The Blue Dream Continues” wrote Le Figaro after a night of celebrations by fans who poured into the streets after the 1-0 win over Belgium, watched by 19 million according to French broadcaster TF1.

“Didier Deschamps is still on track to join Brazilian legend Mario Zagalle and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, the only two heros who have reigned over planet football as both player and coach,” the broadsheet wrote.

Deschamps was captain when France won its first World Cup in 1998, a victory which sparked an outpouring of national pride and jubilation still vivid for millions.

Teams will be fighting it out to hold aloft the World Cup on Sunday. Reuters

“Les Bleus grabbed the Devils by the tail in a spectacular match,” wrote Le Parisien, confident the team is already “at the gates of paradise”.

“They’ll be the favourites for the ultimate title,” the paper claimed, dubbing the team “The Incredibles”.

“There’s no Zinedine Zidane but a bunch of great players surrounded by good players. It’s more of a team, a collective instead of a group gathered around a genius.”

“There’s still one match to go, but they’ve got a freeway in front of them and no more toll booths,” Yeo Mariba, the mother of midfielder Paul Pogba, told the paper while leaving the stadium in Saint Petersburg.

President Emmanuel Macron, who attended Tuesday’s match, plans to return to Russia for the final with his wife Brigitte on Sunday, his office told AFP on Wednesday.

“We’re in the final. Rendez-vous Sunday to bring it home,” the president, a football lover, tweeted.

France have a much-vaunted attack but it is their defence marshalled by Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane that is impressing at the World Cup – at both ends of the pitch.

Croatia came from behind to beat England on Wednesday.

Centre-back Umtiti scored the only goal in Tuesday’s semi-final to condemn Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to the third-place playoff in Russia.

For the third straight knockout match, France needed a game-changing goal from a defender despite boasting a fearsome attacking pair of 19-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe and Euro 2016 Golden Boot winner Antoine Griezmann.

Right-back Benjamin Pavard’s stunning long-range effort from left-back Lucas Hernandez’s cross levelled Les Bleus’ last-16 tie with Argentina at 2-2 after Didier Deschamps’ side fell behind for the first time in the tournament.

Mbappe then took centre-stage in a thrilling 4-3 win on the only occasion the French defence have looked vulnerable in Russia.

Varane headed the opener in a 2-0 quarter-final win against Uruguay as Luis Suarez was shut out.

And Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku could not break through in Saint Petersburg as France registered a fourth clean sheet in six World Cup games to reach the final.

Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann will be hoping to blast France to glory. Reuters

“The defence was excellent,” said Deschamps when asked if Tuesday’s performance was the best defensive display during his reign.

“We had to defend deep, very deep at times because Belgium have technical quality. The idea was not to give them space because they’ve rolled over everyone (in reaching the semi-finals), even Brazil.”

On the few occasions the French defence has been breached, captain Hugo Lloris has come up with big saves against Uruguay and Belgium. Deschamps’ cautious approach does not win admirers from all quarters.

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois declared the result “a shame for football”.

But the success of reaching the World Cup final after also playing in the Euro 2016 final is hard to argue with.

As France look to make amends for losing to Portugal on home soil two years ago, the presence of Varane could make the difference.

Fresh from winning his fourth Champions League title at just 25 with Real Madrid, Varane missed the Euros two years ago due to a thigh injury.

Rivals at club level, he and Barcelona’s Umtiti have formed a strong partnership with a combination of aerial power and speed across the ground. “

As in 2016, the dynamic within the team is very good, but the team is more mature. There is more experience,” said Varane.

Umtiti was drafted in for his international debut to cover for Varane two years ago, and is determined not to suffer another disappointment in a final.

“I’m not a lucky charm,” he said. “We did not win the final at the Euros – that’s why it’s important for me to reach the World Cup final. I hope it will be different and we can bring it back to France.”

Meanwhile, Croatia’s strength of character will serve them well against France, their coach and players said after they came from behind for the third straight knockout match to beat England on Wednesday.

The Croats, who play France 20 years after losing to them in the 1998 World Cup semi-final, fought back to beat England 2-1 after extra time, securing a first final appearance.

“It was a very difficult game for us,” said man of the match Ivan Perisic, who cancelled out Kieran Trippier’s early goal with a fine effort before Mario Mandzukic struck in the 109th minute to complete their third straight comeback win.

“We knew what was at stake and how important the semi-final is for a small country like Croatia,” Perisic added.

“We started slowly today but we showed our character and again came from a goal behind just like we did in the previous knockout rounds.”

Croatia were a goal down against Denmark in the last 16 and against Russia in the quarter-finals, before equalising and forcing extra time and penalty shootouts.

Their victory on Wednesday propelled them a step further than they managed in 1998 when France went on to lift the trophy.

For Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic the final is a chance to settle the score 20 years after the bitter defeat for the small Balkan nation that once again is punching above its weight.

Croatian winger Ivan Perisic scored the equaliser against England on Wednesday. AFP

“Maybe that game has historical significance, maybe the dear Lord is giving us the chance to settle a score,” Dalic said.

“We reached the final, we want to play the final, France had one extra day to recover but there will be no excuses.

“Today nobody wanted to be substituted. Nobody wanted to say I am not ready. In extra time nobody wanted to be taken off.”

“We deserved to reach the final. What the lads played tonight was fantasy, they’ve made history,” Dalic said.

“We haven’t said our last word, there is still one more game to go. God willing, we will be world champions.

“This tournament will be won by a team with character. We were a goal down in three games in a row. We have shown character. We will now celebrate, rest and then prepare for France. It is another daunting task but we are ready for it,” Dalic added.

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