France fine-tuned their preparations for the World Cup final against Croatia on Friday, desperate to overcome the bitter disappointment of losing the Euro 2016 final as FIFA declared Russia 2018 the best-ever tournament.
Didier Deschamps’ team are firm favourites to win Sunday’s showpiece in Moscow and become world champions for the second time — 20 years after their first triumph in 1998.
But they will come up against a hungry Croatia side boasting one of the players of the tournament in Real Madrid star Luka Modric, who is desperate to win the trophy for the nation of just over four million people.
France failed to click in the group stages but they have gone up through the gears during the knockout rounds and look a formidable blend of youthful vitality and experience.
They will approach the match at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium full of confidence and with the pain of losing the final of Euro 2016 on home soil to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal spurring them on.
“The tears have dried from Euro 2016 but it’s still there in a little corner of people’s minds,” said midfielder Blaise Matuidi on Friday.
“It will be useful for us on Sunday, even if I don’t like to keep bringing up the past. It will serve as a lesson to us and it means we know what it is to play in a final.
“We’ll approach it differently and hope that we play really well and win it. It’s up to us to put everything into place to achieve our dream of lifting the World Cup.”
Deschamps’ team are packed with attacking stars such as Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann but it is their defence that has shone in the past two rounds, not conceding a single goal.
Croatia — the smallest nation to make it to the final since Uruguay in 1950 — have battled through three periods of extra-time to reach the final. That means they have played the equivalent of a whole extra match more than France.
But coach Zlatko Dalic said there would be no excuses despite their exertions.
“We prepared to get to the final and we want to play it,” he said. “Going to extra-time might be a problem along with the fact France have had an extra day to recover but there will be no excuses.”
– ‘Best World Cup ever’ –
As the tournament drifts towards its end, FIFA president Gianni Infantino declared it the best ever.
“I was saying this would be the best World Cup ever. Today I can say it with more conviction… it is the best World Cup,” Infantino said in Moscow.
More than one million foreign fans have visited Russia during the World Cup, according to FIFA figures.
“A lot of pre-conceived ideas have changed thanks to this World Cup,” said Infantino.
“Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people keen to show to the world what maybe sometimes is said is not what happens here.”
He also said the use of the VAR (video assistant referee) had been a success and praised the quality of the football, with just a single 0-0 draw in 62 games so far.
– Security operation –
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pour onto the streets of Paris at the weekend, 20 years on from the 1998 win on home soil, when Deschamps was captain of the side.
A security operation swung into full gear, with plans for 110,000 law enforcement officers to be deployed across France as the country celebrates the national Bastille Day holiday and the World Cup final.
“Everything is being done so the French can live these festive moments with peace of mind, despite the terrorist threat which remains at a high level,” Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said.
Before the final, England will play Belgium in a low-key battle for third place in Saint Petersburg on Saturday.
Gareth Southgate said his young team, who were just 22 minutes from reaching the final before Croatia’s impressive comeback in the semi-final, would have to learn from their bitter disappointment.
“The team will be better in a couple of years,” Southgate said in comments to the British press. “We have to build. We have some good young players coming through. We’ve had success at youth level.
“What we’ve done over the last few weeks has shown what is possible. We want to be in semi-finals and finals and we’ve shown to ourselves that can happen.
“Now we have to use it as a springboard to reach the latter stages of tournaments consistently.”