World Cup 2018: 10 reasons it's Croatia and France (and not some usual suspects) in the final

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If you had Croatia vs. France in the 2018 FIFA World Cup final, you won your office pool.

I mean, who had Croatia vs. France?

France, sure, entered as one of the favorites in the tournament. Croatia had been a 33-to-1 shot to win the tournament, ranking 11th of the 32 teams. This was true even though Croatia’s starting midfield features Luka Modric of Real Madrid (who started in the Champions League final victory) and Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona (who started 31 games in a championship La Liga season).

MORE: World Cup final odds: France opens as huge favorite

So how did we get here? More circuitously than one might imagine. It wasn’t simply because Croatia was brilliant and indefatigable (it was) and France was episodically dazzling and perpetually clinical. A lot of things happened to a lot of teams on the way to France vs. Croatia, which gives the French a chance to become the sixth nation to win the tournament twice and Croatia the opportunity to become only the ninth nation to win even once.

Here are 10 excellent reasons we wound up here:

1. Spain pulls a Schembechler. Real Madrid should have known better than to hire Spain’s coach on the eve of the World Cup, but Real’s world revolves entirely around Real. It was stunning, though, that after this apparent subterfuge took place that the Spanish federation chose to dismiss coach Julen Lopetegui with the national team just days away from its opener in Russia.

Schembechler, when he fired Bill Frieder in March 1989 for accepting the Arizona State job effective at the end of the season, hadn’t much to lose. The Wolverines were a No. 3 seed, a threat to make a run in the NCAA Tournament but not expected to win it. Spain was a favorite in this World Cup, and there is only one of these events every four years.

Spain put pride before common sense in forcing out Lopetegui and expecting a man with very little coaching experience, team executive Fernando Hierro, to put the team in the best position to win.

He didn’t. Spain’s only victory in four games was over Iran, by a 1-0 margin.

Hierro was no Steve Fisher, as it turned out.

2. Belgium 1, England 0. When they arrived in the final game of Group G play, both England and Belgium already had qualified for the Round of 16. They also were tied on pretty much every real metric (goal differential, goals scored, etc.) and were going to have to be divided by the “Fair Play” standard if they were to play to a draw. It looked as though that would favor England.

Adnan Januzaj screwed all that up for Belgium by scoring a lovely goal in the second half, giving his team a 1-0 lead that England never seriously threatened. Belgium won the group — and wound up in the much more difficult half of the bracket.

The Belgians needed to beat Japan, Brazil and France to reach the final. They came up one short. Had they ended up where England did, traversing past Colombia and Sweden to end up on the field with Croatia, who knows?

3. Germany runs out of gas. Coach Joachim Low should have learned something when he fielded an energized, hungry team at last summer’s Confederations Cup and that group rolled to the tournament championship.

Instead, he relied on veteran players such as midfielders Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, forward Mario Gomez and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Khedira gave Germany little, Ozil less, and Gomez didn’t score coming off the bench. Neuer had missed months with an injury and wasn’t the heroic keeper who’d dominated when Germany won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

MORE: Croatian firefighters miss PKs to head out on call

Germany’s best player — by far — was one of its youngest, 23-year-old right back Joshua Kimmich.

4. The Argentina disaster. It’s hard to express how genuinely dysfunctional the Argentine national team has been in the latter stages of Lionel Messi’s international career, but one way to explain would be to point out the coaching staff could not devise a way to deploy either Gonzalo Higuain or Sergio Aguero in a game against mighty France.

Aguero scored 21 goals in 25 league games last season for Manchester City. Higuain scored 16 in 35 league games for Juventus.

Had benching these two elite forwards against France led to the team constructing a cohesive, impenetrable defense, that approach might have been understandable. Instead, Argentina surrendered four goals in the Round of 16, the most of any team in the knockout stage.

In four games, Argentina allowed nine total goals. No one else allowed more than seven.

5. Edinson Cavani’s injury. Toward the end of what was otherwise an important triumph for Uruguay, the suffocation and elimination of European champion Portugal in the Round of 16, Cavani went down with a calf injury and had to be helped off the field by Cristiano Ronaldo.

Cavani had scored both goals in that game, each one a dazzling strike that resulted from tremendous combination play. Without him against France in the quarters, Uruguay had nowhere near the offense necessary to advance.

Essentially, it had no offense. Uruguay’s midfield lacks creativity, which forces the team to rely on its taut defense and the ingenuity of its superstar forwards, Cavani and Luis Suarez. Without his partner, Suarez most often was isolated and stranded.

6. Casemiro’s yellow. With Brazil holding a 1-0 lead over Mexico after nearly an hour and looking the far greater threat to score — which it eventually did — its great defensive midfielder, in trying to prevent a counterattack, executed a sideline tackle against Hirving Lozano that was judged to be overly aggressive.

Casemiro was presented with a yellow card. Because it was his second of the tournament, he was suspended for the quarterfinals. That development was as damaging to Brazil as any in the tournament. Without him in to police the middle, Belgium’s Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne owned their quarterfinal game, and they also got some help from forward Romelo Lukaku.

When Lukaku was carrying the ball on a forward run with Belgium already up a goal, Casemiro’s replacement, Fernandinho, could not get in position to stop or redirect him — and got faked out on the best move of Lukaku’s advance. The next Brazil option should have been a tactical foul, but Paulinho declined that tactic, so Lukaku kept going until he found De Bruyne on the right, and he rifled a shot into the goal for a 2-0 lead Brazil could not overcome.

7. Brazil’s (Gabriel) Jesus obsession. With Roberto Firmino coming off a 10-goal Champions League season for Liverpool, Brazil coach Tite decided to put young Gabriel Jesus at the front of his attack at the World Cup. This was a reasonable decision, because Gabriel Jesus was also fresh from a fine season with Manchester City, with 17 goals in 42 appearances.

It was reasonable until it didn’t work. It didn’t work in the beginning, didn’t work in the middle and didn’t work in the end. At some point, this approach should have been abandoned.

Gabriel Jesus never showed any degree of comfort as Brazil’s primary striker, never provided star Neymar with an inviting option, never threatened opposing defenses. The best that can be said of his play is he didn’t blow many good chances, although that’s mostly because he hardly created any. He got only a single shot on target in five games.

As Brazil was eliminated by Belgium in the quarters, Tite opted to go with Gabriel Jesus one more time and got the same result. He went to Firmino earlier than in any previous games, but it still was too late.

MORE: Thank you, England, for making us foolish enough to believe

8. Rakitic and the left post. Modric’s brilliance throughout the tournament could not prevent his team from ending up in penalty shootouts in both the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, and each time it was Rakitic who wound up in the position of stepping to the spot with the opportunity to advance Croatia in the tournament if he scored.

Which he did. Each time, he struck it in the same direction, and each time it found the net.

In fact, with a spot in the semifinals at stake, it was kind of shocking that Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev did not anticipate Rakitic going with the pattern that had worked for him in the prior round against Denmark. Akinfeev leaped in the opposite direction, and Rakitic plagiarized himself with another headline-worthy penalty.

9. The invisible Paul Pogba. We refer to his apparent transparency because it’s the only explanation for how little credit he is receiving for France’s drive to its third World Cup final in the past 20 years. A controversial figure since his big-money move to Manchester United — for a figure that, as things have progressed, now seems almost quaint — Pogba has been France’s best player.

He has been a resolute force in midfield, at both the offensive and defensive end. Pogba does not destroy attacks as a tackler and physical presence, but he is a persistent threat to sneak in from behind, steal the ball and launch a forward attack, as he did to help set up Antoine Griezmann’s clinching strike in the quarterfinals against Uruguay.

At the offensive end, Pogba has worked to create space and opportunity for Griezmann and France’s other attacking threats. He has not scored or assisted on a goal, but he has been a part of nearly every major France moment.

Man U boss Jose Mourinho has appeared disinclined to present Pogba with the sort of freedom and responsibility he has warranted with France. That’s Mourinho’s prerogative. It’s his team. But he is leaving unspent a tremendous asset. Russia 2018 has taught us nothing if not that.

10. Perisic’s can-can. Benjamin Pavard, the right back for France, has been getting a lot of “Goal of the Tournament” love for his remarkable strike from distance in the 4-3 victory over Argentina. Here's hoping that will dissipate after what Ivan Perisic pulled off with a goal that forced extra time vs. England and allowed Croatia to reach the final.

In the 68th minute, with England ahead on its early goal by Kieran Trippier, Croatia’s Sime Vrsaljko was alone on the right side and accepted a long switch from the opposite wing. He then fired a beautiful, curling cross toward the far post. England center back Kyle Walker waited for it to arrive and lined up a headed clearance, but he was unaware Perisic was sneaking in from behind, and Perisic lifted his left boot high off the ground and got it to the ball ahead of Walker’s noggin.

It was borderline legal — a high boot is supposed to be anything above the waist, and Perisic’s hip was flexed toward the sky — but it was allowed. So long as it was a good goal, it was a great goal.

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