Just as soon as the Croatian players began to accept their runner-up medals, it poured from the skies. The glut would only go on to intensify, its ferocity reminding one of the onslaught Croatia had failed to withstand earlier. On an evening which was supposed to bring a leap into the uncharted, the Vatreni found itself pulled back by the familiar: Another underdog which could not complete its fairytale.
The 2-4 scoreline was not what Croatia’s performance deserved. For the first hour, it had shaded the proceedings. But by then, France was also 3-1 up. In a tournament which did not ask any side to reveal the boundaries of its brilliance, France seized the moments best. It was something which could be said about the Croats as well, until Sunday.
After the match, though, coach Zlatko Dalic chose to focus on misfortune as a factor. “I never comment on refereeing but let me just say one sentence — in a World Cup final, you do not give such a penalty. Please, don’t take this as me saying anything bad about the referee. I just shared my way of thinking… This in no way diminishes France’s achievement. But the luck we’ve had all tournament, we lacked that today, especially for the first two goals.”
Those two strikes did represent favourable omens for France. More importantly, though, the goals dented the optimistic outlook with which the Croats had approached the final. On Croatia’s team bus, runs a slogan — small country with big dreams. The aspirations were evident in the players’ performance as they had bounteous energy for company. The optimism was reflected in the turnout at the Luzhniki Stadium as well, with large sections of the stands coloured in Croatia’s chequered red and white.
Dalic’s players were able to convert their enthusiasm into threat as the initial exchanges saw Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe drop deep to hold the opposition out. The intention was to press France high and win the ball closer to goal. For a team which had not won before extra time in the knockout stages, this was a brave tactic as greater physical effort was demanded from the players.
The intensity did come in handy as Croatia recovered from Mario Mandzukic’s own goal, which had arrived against the run of play.
Although the Vatreni lost its focus somewhat after falling behind, the threat was sustained by not allowing the French to enjoy long spells of possession. This was doubly important on a humid evening. France had shown against Uruguay and Belgium that it was at its most comfortable when asked to protect a lead. However, as the temperature got cooler, Les Bleus discovered the more dangerous dimensions of Croatia’s intensity.
Ivan Perisic was resurgent again. He ran at the French defence with venom and it was no surprise that it was he who scored the equaliser. A blistering shot following a spell of head tennis left Hugo Lloris well-beaten; Modric could take credit for the goal too as he picked out Sime Vrsaljko’s run into the box from his freekick.
A fourth equaliser in as many matches suggested Croatia was yet again on the brink of a special comeback. The confidence grew because France looked rattled, for the first time since Argentina had threatened to derail Didier Deschamps’ side. But the French manager was keen to stress afterwards the significance of that victory in the Round of 16. He believed the defeat of Argentina had shaped his players in more mature ways.
Although it was a contentious penalty that put France back on track, the manner in which Croatia was dismantled in the second half showed that the eventual winner was the one able to quickly shift through the gears. At the interval, Croatia’s seven shots to one was an accurate reflection of its dominance. But the legs got heavy and spaces opened up as the match went on. The extended previous matches told on the Croats.
Early in the second half, Mbappe gave a warning of the impending damage when he ran free to shoot from a tight angle; only to be denied by goalkeeper Danijel Subasic. However, the goalie’s shoddy effort in stopping both Pogba and Mbappe’s strikes brought the failure home. At 1-4, there were little doubts left over the identity of the new champion.
Of course, the absurdity of this World Cup would still allow one more twist. Mandzukic became the first player to score at both ends as he nicked the ball off Lloris yards away from goal in an inexplicable loss of concentration from the French captain.
For a short while, the lapse allowed Croatia to believe that it could script a grand final comeback that would make their previous triumphs seem like cakewalk. But a French side which defines itself through defensive resilience was never going to entertain a shock of that magnitude. Croatia’s glorious journey had carried it farther than before but the surprises had to stop at last.
After the final whistle, coach Dalic was keen to combat the downcast mood in his camp. Croatia’s historic manoeuvre, after all, will not be forgotten easily. The wheels did come off at the Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, but the fruits of its labour remain sweet. With time, the salty tears seen in the overpowering rain will dissolve too.
Updated Date: Jul 16, 2018 10:26:19 IST