Sunday’s World Cup final, between France and Croatia, is the biggest game of soccer’s biggest tournament. The World Cup final is rarely a memorable game. The 2010 and 2014 finals both featured a single, scrappy goal scored deep into extra time, when both teams were exhausted. The 2006 final finished in a penalty shootout and is mostly remembered for France’s Zinedine Zidane getting sent off for head-butting an Italian defender.
These have not been soccer classics. Generally, both teams are extra conservative, with neither team wanting to fall behind and thus have to chase the game. Here are the key battles to look out for, as both teams try less to win and more to avoid losing.
When Croatia has the ball: Keep an eye on the battle between Croatian central midfielder Luka Modric and French defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante. If Croatia is going to create any chances against the stout France defense, it will need to be able to hold the ball in the center of the field. That’s what Modric’s been so good at, as he’s helped Real Madrid to three straight Champions League titles. Kante, though, is one of the most tireless, disruptive defensive midfielders in all of soccer. If Kante can harass Modric into mistakes, Croatia will have to try to play the ball out wide, and France should be able to snuff out those attacks.
When France has the ball: Watch how its three forwards — Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappe — choose to attack the Croatian defense. Defending has not been Croatia’s strong suit. The Croatians have conceded at least one goal in each of their knockout-round games.
Griezmann and, especially, Mbappe have the speed to get behind the defense; Croatia cannot leave room for counter-attacks, or it will be torn apart. If Mbappe and Griezmann are cautiously sending in crosses for Giroud to try to chase, Croatia will have a chance to at least win the aerial duels and clear the ball, and a much better chance of holding France scoreless. If the two French wide forwards are cutting inside and shooting, then Croatia will be in trouble — doubly so if midfielders Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi are also putting pressure on the defense.
Energy level: As the game wears on, the fatigue factor may become a key to the game. France not only has had an extra day of rest but also hasn’t played an extra-time game in the tournament. Croatia played the equivalent of an extra match in the knockout round, thanks to three consecutive extra-time wins, and has to be exhausted .
Even if Croatia can take a lead, I don’t think it will have enough energy left to hold down the powerful France attack. In this game, the smart money is all on France.
• Cristiano Ronaldo kicked off the summer transfer silly season by forcing his way out of Real Madrid, the club that made him a world superstar, to Juventus, a club that has won seven consecutive Serie A titles in Italy. Ronaldo, 33, has nothing left to win at club level; all that’s left to do is make a ton of money playing for the Italian team that needs him least.
• Speaking of Ronaldo, Juventus paid Real Madrid 100 million euros for his signature. Every club in Europe should be on the lookout for Real Madrid to spend that money, and more, to replace his goal-scoring ability. Harry Kane, with Tottenham, or Paris Saint-Germain stars Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are the three most commonly mentioned potential replacements.
• The NWSL has endured a number of franchise moves and foldings over the past few years, and now, the plight of Sky Blue FC (based in New Jersey) is worrisome. This year, the team acquired U.S. superstar Carli Lloyd, a New Jersey native — and is still winless, with just three points in 14 games, and last in league attendance.
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NWSL: Orlando at Utah, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPNNews. While North Carolina runs away with the league, five other teams are neck-and-neck for three playoff spots — including these two. Utah has just one home loss in its first NWSL season. Orlando will be without superstar Marta, who was sent off in a midweek loss to Houston.
MLS: Seattle at Atlanta, 1 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. Atlanta is the league’s best team so far in 2018, while Seattle — remarkably — has been one of MLS’ worst teams, after reaching the past two league title games. The Sounders have done about all the losing they can afford. Can new signing Raul Rudíaz light a fire for Seattle — that is, if he plays?
MLS: Portland at Los Angeles FC, 5 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. It’s not impossible to imagine that this is a preview of a Western Conference playoff match. Despite being an expansion team, LAFC might be the most dangerous team in the West, while Portland has found a setup that works — and is on a 13-game unbeaten run.
Mexico: Tigres vs. Santos Laguna, 8 p.m. Sunday, Univision. This is the annual Campeón de Campeones exhibition match, pitting the champions of each half of last season against each other. It might not be meaningful in the grand scheme of things, but it does serve as the beginning of Mexico’s soccer calendar.