France emerged as the 2018 World Cup winners in Moscow at the end of an eventful final against Croatia.
Les Bleus could count themselves lucky to have been given the rub of the green with two decisions leading to goals in the first half, sandwiching a brilliant strike from Ivan Perisic to level the sides on the half-hour mark.
France scored twice more in quick succession in the second half as it became clear that Croatia were tiring – and though Zlatko Dalic’s men refused to ever fully give up, France proved to be just that bit more streetwise when it came down to it.
4-2 the final score, and France have claimed the World Cup trophy for the second time.
But what did we learn from 90 eventful minutes in Moscow?
There’s more than one way to win a World Cup final
Didier Deschamps has been pilloried for France’s conservative style of play for large parts of this tournament, and yet he was the one lifting the trophy at the end of it. It was rarely exciting, and one could argue that the players should be given more freedom given how talented they are, and yet it’s their name on the World Cup.
One thing they have been, however, is effective. France rarely put a foot wrong at any point in this World Cup, and the policy of “just enough” carried them right through the whole campaign. Then, as soon as Croatia gave them an opening in the second, they took the opportunity, finally, to fully turn the screw.
Hugo Lloris’ moment of madness gave Croatia late hope, but France are the world champions on merit. Some will still suggest that Deschamps is still not fully getting the best from what is an absurdly talented group of players, but does that matter?
Croatia’s heavy workload finally took its toll
Croatia took the long route to the final, coming through two penalty shootouts and another period of extra time against England to get to the final. They could be forgiven for approaching this match with an element of physical and mental tiredness, and yet they started the match full of urgency and really tried to force the issue.
However, as the match wore on and with the perceived refereeing injustices, physical and mental tiredness seemed to creep in. The third and fourth goals were arguably a result of that, and for all of their battling determination and refusal to give up, this proved to be a bridge too far against a superbly talented France team.
They can take so much heart from their run to the final, however, and have inarguably shown themselves to be one of the best teams in the world with this campaign.
Handball, as a rule, needs a clearer definition
Undoubtedly the most controversial moment of the first half came when Ivan Perisic was (eventually) adjudged to have handled the ball in the box, after an extensive period of checking the footage by the referee. The ball touched the Inter midfielder’s hand, of that there is no doubt, but after that, the rules aren’t exactly clear.
It’s unclear whether or not Perisic touched it deliberately – given how close Blaise Matuidi was to him and how little time he would have had to react either way, it seems unlikely but not impossible. And yet, would that even matter in the strictest interpretation of the rules? Some referees, upon seeing the footage, would not have given the penalty for that, and some (like Nestor Pitana today) would. It’s subjectivity that FIFA would do well to cut out of their laws and clear up what should and should count as a handball worth penalising.
Pogba did the work of two men as Kante faltered
The midfield battle between N’Golo Kante/Paul Pogba and Ivan Rakitic/Luka Modric was set to be one of the most intriguing of this encounter, and yet that’s not how it turned out. Remove Pogba’s goal from the equation and it was evident that there was an element of control in the centre by Croatia – especially in the first half.
N’Golo Kante, so often the midfield enforcer, was nowhere to be seen and seemed more likely to get himself sent off than to provide any sort of positive contribution to the French cause. He was sacrificed early in the second half as it had become patently clear that this was not going to be the Chelsea man’s day.
As Kante was having an off-day, it was left to Pogba to do the work of two men. The Man United midfielder has been terrific for much of this tournament and today was no different – tracking back when needed, selflessly putting the team first and being the team’s “water carrier.” His goal, a brilliant finish and just reward for his performance, was a natural consequence rather than a forced moment.
The tournament was given the brilliant, crazy final it deserved
Penalties, own goals and VAR had been the main talking points of this World Cup, so it was only fitting that the final would include all three. If the 2014 final was seen as a nervy, attritional final, this was anything but as both sides really went for it at times.
It was a bizarre final in many ways, as France rarely looked like a team in enough control over Croatia to have put four goals past them, but it was the fitting conclusion to a tournament that has not been short of incident, full of drama, intrigue, controversy and fantastic goals. A brilliant tournament comes to a conclusion with a suitable finale.