Joey Gulino: Welcome back to the FC Yahoo Mixer, everyone! This is possibly our last of the 2018 World Cup. I don’t know. We can’t predict the future. So … let’s predict the future!
Who you guys got in Sunday’s World Cup final between France and Croatia?
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Is this where I gloat? It doesn’t matter, I’m gloating anyway. Before the World Cup, I picked France to win it over Belgium. (I also picked Kylian Mbappe for Golden Boot — he might win the Golden Ball instead. And I picked Germany as “Favorite that will fall on its face.” So you should probably follow me around and place large bets on the things I say.)
I was obviously only half-right on my prediction for the final, since Belgium and France ran into each other in the semifinal. I’d thought one of them would make a slow start to the tournament and fail to win their group — oops.
But I stand by my pick for winner. France hasn’t even really gotten out of third gear and made it to the final fairly comfortably. Didier Deschamps has played pragmatically, sitting in a lot. But he’s gotten the results. And it feels like there’s still a higher level available in the French, when they really need to summon it.
Croatia, for its part, beat England largely because the Three Lions got far too comfortable after going ahead. They’re still not a great team. And they’ve now played extra-time — or gone all the way to penalties — in all three of their knockout-round games. With only three days of rest, on the back of a long season for its veteran stars, I don’t see how Croatia summons the energy to beat France.
Ryan Bailey: Like Leander, I picked France to make the final at the outset. However, I also predicted that Germany would beat them in said final. And I maintained that Poland would be the dark horse that would wow us all with their unstoppable force. So no gloating from me.
Croatia, marking its debut at this stage of the competition, might boast the best midfield in the international game. Mario Mandzukic is a certified Big Time Player™, Ivan Perisic is a constant threat (even if he has absolutely no business wearing the No. 4 shirt) and Domagoj Vida is a rock at the back (even if he has no business wearing that undercut).
What’s more, the Vatreni have been pushed to extra time in their last three games, but still managed to show superhuman levels of energy as they gradually exposed England’s flaws in the semifinal.
However, France will win its second World Cup, 20 years after pipping Brazil to its first at the Stade de France.
Les Bleus have slowly improved with every game, they have maintained a “do just enough” approach that has, as Leander says, seen them rarely need to get into top gear, and they boast the highest-quality squad in the competition.
For me, it’s a conservative 1-0 win for Didier Deschamps, two decades after he lifted the famous trophy as French captain.
Also, if Antoine Griezmann doesn’t get the Golden Ball, we riot.
Alex Baker: Yeah, I picked Germany too, only I had them beating Brazil, so I got it completely wrong. That said, I’m happier with the way it’s turned out, even if that makes Leander right, kind of anyway. It’s definitely France’s World Cup to lose now. Like most people, I still suspect Deschamps’ team has another gear to hit, but it’s a testament to just how good it is, that the French have gone this far without really needing to hit it. I was particularly impressed at the way they handled Belgium, letting them have possession but largely limiting their attacking chances.
I’ve also really enjoyed Croatia. This is the first time for a long time, maybe ever, that I can remember a team that no one was really talking about before the tournament has reached the final and actually has a shot at winning it. Do I think they will? No, but I don’t think the Croatians care what people think.
Like Ryan, I was impressed with the reserves of energy they summoned to beat England. I can see them being a handful for France, and maybe taking it to extra time. But an upset seems unlikely, so in the end I still think France wins it. I’ll say 2-1, extra time, Griezmann and Mbappe with the goals.
I also feel like Modric should get the Golden Ball, win or lose, just for hauling this unfancied Croatia team all the way to the final.
Shahan Ahmed: Why focus on the past? Sure, Leander will brag about how he picked France before the tournament, but that was before a single ball had been kicked. After the group stages, based on actual football analysis, I picked Croatia to go to the final with Luka Modric a good shout to win the Golden Ball and probably deserving of the Ballon d’Or at the end of the year — even though Ronaldo will probably somehow end up with it.
Anyhow, Brazil didn’t win the World Cup, so I was wrong, but that’s as much down to match referees refusing to turn to VAR in the knockout rounds as it is to the Selecao getting outplayed for a half against Belgium. Has a single match referee gone and even taken a look at the monitor during the knockout rounds?
Russia 2018, however, has been a tournament of upsets. After all, no one had Germany losing to Mexico AND South Korea, Russia beating Spain, Belgium knocking out Brazil (OK, some people had this one) and England making a bloody semifinal. So, Croatia stunning France in the final and winning its first ever World Cup wouldn’t even count as one of the top three surprises of the tournament.
It’s been fun. Let’s do this again in four years … in Qatar. Sigh.
Henry Bushnell: This has been, and will be remembered as, the World Cup of N’Golo Kante. He’s been the best and most important player in Russia. He and what he represents are a big reason I just can’t see France losing the final.
Croatia is coming off its best 60 minutes of the tournament, non-Argentine shambles division. But other than the valiant fightback against England, I actually think the Croats have been relatively ordinary. Now they’re on one fewer day of rest than the most talented team in Russia, and coming off an unprecedented three consecutive extra-time games.
Of course they have a shot – roughly 30, 35 percent? – but had they played the England game over against France instead, they’d have been at least 2-0 down at halftime. And they’d have had no way back. France – with Kante shielding the defense, buzzing sideline to sideline and breaking up counterattacks – has conceded just 5.3 Expected Goals in six matches. That rate would’ve ranked second in the Premier League this past season, second in the Bundesliga, and first in La Liga. This is an elite defense with elite individual attackers in front of it. France has probably been the second-best team at the World Cup (after Brazil), and should win it.
Doug McIntyre: Does it count that I told my French brother-in-law the night before the tournament that Les Bleus would win it all? Officially, I picked Argentina and Lionel Messi, but that was always more of a hope than a prediction. It seemed unlikely but not entirely implausible. Funny things happen at World Cups, as we’ve seen.
In any case, I too expect France to win on Sunday. But I also feel like everyone’s still somehow underestimating Croatia. This is where I have to admit that I pegged the Croats to go out in the group stage, with the caveat that with a little luck they were also talented enough to duplicate their 1998 semifinal run.
Now, they’ve gone one game further. And the thing I keep thinking about is the seeminly limitless resilience it took for them to reach this final. That’s no small thing. I’m not sure France has come up against a team as determined as this yet. Croatia is the more streetwise side to me, and while the likes of Kante and Griezmann and veteran goalkeeper Hugo Lloris have a ton of experience, this French squad is young. That youth could come in handy against a tired team, but then isn’t that what we said about England? I just wonder if Didier Deschamps’ squad is strong enough mentally to overcome, say, an early goal against.
Again, I think Les Bleus pull this out. I think Kylian Mbappe will have a monster game, mainly because I wrote after France reached the title game that this would be the 19-year-old’s moment to shine, and I like to look smart.
But after seeing Croatia come back from the dead on multiple occasions over three win-or-go-home games, I’m just not convinced it will be the walk in the park for France that many expect.
Gulino: Great stuff all around. Let me say this to finish.
The “greatest World Cup ever” shtick FOX has adopted is too much, but there’s been an undeniable shock quality to this tournament. The USMNT misses it entirely. So do Italy, the Netherlands and Chile. Then Germany goes out in the group stage. Then Mexico, Spain, Messi and Ronaldo all go out in the knockout stage within 48 hours of each other. Then Brazil falls in the quarterfinals. Then England first makes the semifinals, period, and then exits there.
France is the most talented team on the planet. Croatia is scrappy as hell. These two sides produced a memorable semifinal in 1998, when the only two goals Lilian Thuram ever scored for the national team lifted the French into the final. I’m picking France, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that this truly is the World Cup for the unexpected.
Oh who am I kidding, I haven’t learned anything. We’ll learn who’s right about the champion on Sunday.