MOSCOW-A month on and 63 games later, the 2018 World Cup reaches its climax on Sunday as a young France side spearheaded by Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann look to win the trophy for the second time when they take on Croatia in Moscow.

It is a final very few people could have anticipated four weeks ago, when the competition in Russia was just beginning. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar have all gone home. So have the traditional powers of the international game -- Germany, Brazil and Argentina.

Instead it is a gifted French side with the second-youngest squad at the tournament, embodied by the lightning-quick Mbappe, who face a Croatian team inspired by Luka Modric, arguably the finest midfielder in the world at the moment. Perhaps many neutrals will be disappointed that it has not come down to a clash between two genuine giants of the game, or that there is no South American presence.

It is just the second time that none of Brazil, Germany, Italy or Argentina have made the final, after Spain's win over the Netherlands in 2010. A tournament that will be remembered for the colourful presence of hordes of Latin American supporters has a final between two European sides after the continent exerted its power in the latter stages.

But this is still the World Cup final, and for France there is the possibility to join Argentina and Uruguay in winning the trophy for the second time, after 1998. Back then, Didier Deschamps was the captain. Now he is the coach, and he can become just the third man to win the trophy as a player and a manager, after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer.

"A World Cup final, it's a bit like a boyhood dream coming true," said midfielder Blaise Matuidi. "We are so close to the trophy that we want to touch it. This is the game of our lives."

Beaten on penalties by Italy in the 2006 final, France's hunger is all the greater after the agony of their defeat as hosts against Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. "It serves a lesson to us, and it means we know what it is to play in a final," added Matuidi. Half of France's team is different now, however, with Mbappe having burst onto the scene. His explosive performance in the 4-3 win over Argentina in the last 16 lit up the competition, but apart from that France have played like a Deschamps side, with the emphasis on defence. Les Bleus laboured through their group, beating Australia and Peru by the odd goal and drawing with Denmark in the only goalless game of the tournament.

They have since proved too strong for the Argentines, Uruguay and Belgium, and they are rightly favourites in the final, which is a repeat of the 1998 semi-final. Back then, two Lilian Thuram goals sunk a Croatia team playing in their first World Cup as an independent nation. Twenty years on, this side have written their own history and the nation of just over four million people is the smallest to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950.

After winning all three group games, outclassing Argentina, they have beaten Denmark and Russia on penalties and defeated England in extra-time in the semi-finals. It has been a gruelling, exhausting run for Zlatko Dalic's team, and they must rouse themselves for one last effort.

"We took the difficult path, probably we will be the only team at a World Cup to have played eight games to get to a final if you tally up all the minutes," admitted Dalic. "It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It has been difficult for us but I am sure we will find the strength and motivation."

The great, cavernous Luzhniki, by a bend in the Moscow River, will be the scene of the drama, but the biggest celebrations will take place on the streets of the winning country. And the Croatians are confident most of the world will be supporting them. "I have this feeling there will be hundreds of millions rooting for us on Sunday," said Ivan Rakitic.

 

 

 

key battles

 

Luka Modric v N’golo Kante

There is little doubt the performances of Modric and Kante will be key to the destination of the World Cup. Modric, technically gifted and rich in big match experience after winning four Champions League titles in five seasons at Real Madrid, is the beating heart of the Croatia team and can be elusive as he prompts, probes and switches the line of attack. Apparently indefatigable, Modric plays a full role in the defensive effort and has the ability to suddenly pull a defence-splitting pass out of the bag at a key moment.

When Kante plays well, France play well is a saying with much currency largely because of the holding midfielder’s ability to snuff out danger in the space in front of the back four. His distribution skills also help in the rapid transition from defence to attack that make France such a threat on the break.

 

 

Kylian Mbappe v Dejan Lovren

Teenager Mbappe is already established as one of the players of the tournament with his raw pace causing huge problems for opposing defences from the start of France’s campaign.

His two goals against Argentina in the round of 16 illustrated that he has a sublime touch to go with his blinding speed and although he has not found the net since, no defender is going to enjoy an evening trying to contain him.

Lovren and Domagoj Vida have formed a rock-solid central defensive partnership for Croatia during the run to the final, encapsulating the backs-to-the-wall attitude of their resilient side. They were exposed early in the semi-final by the pace of Raheem Sterling, however, and in Mbappe they face a player with a considerably better record of delivering the final product than the England forward.

 

Ivan Perisic v Benjamin Pavard

Perisic was Man of the Match in the semi-final against England after scoring Croatia’s equaliser and then providing the assist with a looping header for Mario Mandzukic’s winner. A player who thrives on confidence, the Inter Milan wingback tormented England’s Kyle Walker in the second half after he had been given licence to push forward down the left flank.

Pavard came into the French side at the start of the tournament as a replacement for the injured Djibril Sidibe and has played well enough to maintain his position even though the incumbent right back has regained fitness.

His magnificent half-volleyed strike in the last 16 match against Argentina was his most high-profile contribution to the run to the final but more important, perhaps, was his part in keeping the likes of Belgium’s Eden Hazard quiet.

 

 

 

A Griezmann v M Brozovic

Recalled by Zlatko Dalic for the semi-final, Inter Milan midfielder Brozovic freed up Modric and Rakitic from defensive duties at the base of the midfield and always provided an out ball for his centre-backs as Croatia dominated possession. Griezmann has not shone as brightly as at Euro 2016, when he won the Golden Boot. His three goals have come from two penalties and a goalkeeping mistake by Uruguay's Fernando Muslera.

However, the Atletico Madrid star has improved as the tournament has progressed and has been France's main playmaker, providing the assists for Varane's and Samuel Umtiti's goals in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.

Griezmann's energy and intelligence will see him find space to feed Giroud and Kylian Mbappe if Croatia's energy levels run low. It'll be Brozovic's job to make sure he does not.

 

Key stats

 

*             France are making their third World Cup final appearance, after winning the trophy on home soil in 1998 and losing to Italy in the 2006 showpiece.

*             Croatia have never reached a tournament final of any kind. They were semi-finalists in their first World Cup appearance in 1998 after gaining independence following the breakup of Yugoslavia, but lost to eventual winners France 2-1.

*   Croatia needed extra time and penalties to beat Denmark in the round of 16 and Russia in the quarter-finals. They also needed extra time to edge England in the last four.

*             Croatia have played more than 360 minutes of football in those three matches, excluding time spent on the pitch for penalties in two of them. France needed just 270 minutes in their three knockout games to reach the final.

*             After topping their group, France beat Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium to reach the final but never needed more than 90 minutes each time.

*             They scored seven goals in these three games, more than double their tally (three goals) in their three group matches.

*             France have also had an extra day of rest having beaten Belgium 1-0 in their semi-final on Tuesday. Croatia won 2-1 after extra time against England on Wednesday.

*             This is the second international tournament final for France in two years, after also reaching the final of Euro 2016 on home soil only to lose to Portugal.

*             Midfielder Luka Modric, forwards Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic are Croatia’s top scorers in the tournament with two goals. Croatia have averaged two goals per game, having netted 12 times in six matches so far.

*             The 32-year-old Modric, who will break Croatia’ record for most World Cup appearances (currently 11) if he plays in the final, has also worked harder than any other player in the tournament, having covered a distance of 63km in total according to FIFA statistics.

*             France’s top scorers are Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe with three goals apiece in Russia. France have scored a total of 10 goals but have conceded one less than Croatia’s five.

*             One Croatia player who will not be at the final, even on the bench, is striker Nikola Kalinic who was sent home from the World Cup after refusing to come on as a substitute in the team’s opening game against Nigeria. Coach Zlatko Dalic said it had happened before both in a friendly against Brazil and in training sessions. Kalinic could not be replaced so Croatia continued in the tournament with a 22-man squad.