Croatia: Giant-killers on the loose
Football World Cup 2018 restored our faith in the saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction". There were hundreds of nail-biting moments, electrifying matches, and some new faces to rule the world of football for years to come. Fans, rival teams, bookies, the host nation, even the organizers were left astounded. But above all, when we talk about the final match we all were in shock to read the climax; France vs. Croatia.
France was obviously a contender from the beginning, but Croatia was a real surprise. They were among the underdogs before the extravagant bonanza began, but nobody would have dreamed of what they have done for their country. After 20 years of hard work, they came one step closer this time, only to be destroyed by the sheer brilliance of France.
On their journey to the finals of FIFA 2018, Croatia inflicted many casualties. They were in a tough group with Argentina (definite contenders, if not favorites), Nigeria and Iceland (The Underdogs). With the star striker Nikola Kalinic sent home in the first match of the tournament, many football pundits would have written Croatia off. The team, however, believed in the power of their love for the country and the skills they own.
Argentina became Croatia’s first prey. Although Argentina had the lion’s share of ball possession during the match, yet they never looked comfortable. Things went further down the hill as Messi seemed terribly out of touch. Zlatko’s team was aware enough and they didn’t take much time after the first half to expose the glaring cracks in the La Albiceleste’s strategy. Luka Modric (winner of the golden ball) was the play-maker who not only gave his team an invincible lead in the 80th minute but also orchestrated the attacks through those breathtaking 90 minutes.
Croatia entered the knockout stage with their tails up as they were invincible during the group stage with a goal difference of 7 to 1. The next in line was Denmark, a team ranked 8 notches above the Croatian team in FIFA rankings. The match against Denmark ended in a draw, so the penalty shoot-out came into play. It was time for Danijel Subasic to emerge as a hero, which he did by blocking three shots during penalty shootouts. Zlatko's team entered the Quarter-finals, where they were up against the host team.
Croatia's encounter was set-up against Russia in the Quarter-finals. Russia’s run in the cup had been smooth so far, except for the rout against Uruguay. In the Quarterfinals, an astonishing header by Mario Fernandes for the equalizer (2-2) in dying minutes, ensured another nail-biting finish for the Croatian fans. It was time for penalty shoot-outs again, however, a horrible start by Fernandes ended the dreams of Russians.
Croatia ensured their place in the semi-finals against England after a yawning gap of two (2) decades. England was on fire during the tournament, and Kane was leading from the front. The game started brilliantly well for the Three Lions as just five (5) minutes into the game, Trippier’s free-kick went into the north-east corner of the goal. The men in white were ecstatic and Trippier was nowhere to be found in the heap of Englishmen. There could not have been a better strike than Trippier’s, to get a lead in the semi-finals. England however, missed two back to back chances when Kane goofed up twice in front of the goal.
For Croatia, Ivan Perisic proved himself as a super athlete as he barged one into the net for the equalizer. The Luzhniki Stadium (largest in Russia) with a seating capacity of 81,000 erupted into joy as the road to finals was wide open for the Croatians. Perisic again tried to make a move, but the ball rebounded to Rebic who picked the spot nicely, only to find Pickford with a brilliant save.
An astounding left foot kick from Mandzukic in the extra time proved to be a final nail in England's coffin. The Croatians were into the finals, for the first time in their history of being a football playing nation.
The final match was in the historic city of Moscow. The journey to the biggest stage was like a fairy tale for the men in red and whites. Zlatko’s men looked up for the challenge, but unfortunately, a penalty kick from Griezmann took a faint touch from Mandzukic and went straight into the net. The first goal of the FIFA 2018 final was an own goal.
Croatian’s were determined to get back into the game as early as possible and Perisic didn't do anything wrong when there was a chance. Croatia leveled the game after 10 minutes of the first goal. Another 10 minutes, another penalty kick and Griezmann does it again. A deceptive kick from the 27-year-old placed Frenchmen in the lead. It seemed that the number 7 couldn’t do anything wrong on the day when it mattered the most. He again came to action with an assist to Pagba, who shot it straight into the net and the scoreline was 3-1.
Finally, it was Kylian Mbappe's turn to be the part of glory, as he became the first to score a world cup final goal by a teenager, since Pele. France was now 4-1 ahead and the fate of the match looked sealed. Four minutes later, Mandzukic literally snatched the ball from Lloris and flicked it into the goal to save the pride for his team. At the final whistle, the scorecard was 4-2 and the Frenchmen were the champions.
The world will acknowledge that the final couldn’t have been half of what it was, without the spirited game of the Croatians. They have arrived on the stage in a big way and are here to stay because of some outstanding performances by players like Lovren, Modric, Vida, Rakitic and Perisic. A big bow to the lion-hearted performance of Croatia and a formidable competitor, France.
What a final! What a World cup it was!