Soccer-Will to trump skill in World Cup's ultimate character test
By Mitch Phillips
MOSCOW, July 13 (Reuters) - Croatia will hope that their fierce desperation to accomplish the greatest sporting achievement in the nation's short life will enable them to lift their battered bodies for one, last assault on France in Sunday's World Cup final.
Equally desperate, which is how it should of course be in the final, are a classy French team still stinging from the pain of losing the European Championship final on home soil two years ago and in no mood for a repeat.
Appearing in the final for the first time, Croatia bring a rare fresh face to the pinnacle of the planet's most-watched sporting event.
The Balkan country of four million are the 13th team to reach a final but will seek to join an even more exclusive club of eight who have won the trophy.
They start as strong outsiders against a French team seeking their second title following their triumph on home soil in 1998, and they would not want it any other way.
That burning inner fire helped carry Croatia to the semi-finals of their first World Cup in 1998 where the dream run was ended by France.
After that they failed to again reach the knockout phase until this tournament, where they have had to channel the spirit of those pathfinders of 20 years ago to surpass their achievement.
All three of Croatia's knockout games in Russia have gone to extra time while France, who also have an extra day's rest, completed theirs in regulation.
In their semi-final victory over England, however, it was the Croatians who seemed able to find a hidden gear in the extra period, looking fresher and stronger despite their exertions of needing penalties to get past Denmark and Russia.
When they should have been on their knees they instead started to show glimpses of the attacking brilliance that had blown away Argentina in one of the most impressive performances of the group stage.
They struggled to find any of that sort of rhythm against the obdurate Danes and Russians but did display their other key characteristic - the will to keep fighting when things get tough.
They are in the final after coming from behind in all three knockout games, while France have not trailed in any of their six matches. "We are a nation of people who never give in, who are proud and have character and we have shown that again," coach Zlatko Dalic said after the England victory.
It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that Croatia have got so far purely on effort and application, as a glance at the elite clubs represented by their probable starting team reveals.
There is technical ability in every department but, at the heart of it all, has been Luka Modric, who will win his 112th cap in the final.
The midfielder's controlled probing and passing combined with his constant buzzing movement and authority extracts the best of those around him.
France know that keeping him quiet is their key challenge, and in N'Golo Kante, they have the perfect man to do it.
Kante's calm smothering of rivals' attacks, brilliantly showcased in suppressing the threat of Belgium in the semi-final, gives the French defence more time to organise themselves, and they have consequently looked assured throughout.
Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained the team to their 1998 triumph operating as a "water carrier" knows better than most how essential that grunt work is to any team's success.
That is not to say that France do not have their own deadly weapons, with teenager Kylian Mbappe arguably the most exciting talent in the tournament.
Much weighs on his 19-year-old shoulders as his goalless frontline partner Olivier Giroud, for all his solid target-man displays, is not playing like a man to strike fear into the heart of an opponent.
France were hot favourites to beat Portugal in the Euro 2016 final in Paris but never got going and lost 1-0.
Deschamps says he still feels the pain of that defeat and he and his players will use it to ensure they treat Croatia with the utmost respect.
Like Dalic, he has praised the mental strength of his team, particularly in the testing semi against Belgium.
So, like many a final before, Sunday's showdown might begin as a battle of skill, but is likely to be decided by the battle of will. (Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)