With France and Croatia set to square off on Sunday to determine the winner of the 21st World Cup, theScore looks at which players would make a combined starting XI consisting of the two European finalists.
Goalkeeper: Hugo Lloris
France’s No. 1 shot-stopper was incredible against Belgium, making a number of fantastic saves in the first half, including a diving effort to deny Toby Alderweireld following a Belgian corner-kick. The Tottenham ‘keeper hasn’t been called upon too often – he’s made just 11 saves in five matches – but he has bailed out his country when needed.
Right-back: Sime Vrsaljko
After suffering a knee injury in the quarter-final against Russia, Vrsaljko looked set to miss Croatia’s semi-final clash against England. The full-back unexpectedly recovered in time, though, and proved to be a pivotal piece in the win, sending in the cross that set up Ivan Perisic for Croatia’s first goal. It’s no surprise, then, that the Atletico Madrid full-back is reportedly already drawing interest from an assortment of European clubs.
Centre-back: Raphael Varane, Samuel Umtiti
Les Bleus’ centre-back duo may play for rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona at club level, but Varane and Umtiti’s solidarity in the heart of France’s defence has been clear all tournament. Thanks in large part to the pair, as well as Lloris, Les Bleus have recorded four clean sheets in Russia. And as an added bonus, each of the centre-backs has a goal to his name.
Left-back: Lucas Hernandez
A product of Atletico’s youth academy, the 22-year-old Hernandez has staked his claim as both his club’s and country’s starting left-back for the foreseeable future, besting Benjamin Mendy for the latter despite entering the World Cup with just a handful of senior international caps. With a more reserved Blaise Matuidi playing ahead of him, he has been a constant threat down France’s left flank in Russia, and Benjamin Pavard’s wondergoal against Argentina would have never transpired if it wasn’t for Hernandez’s intelligent preceding run and timely cross.
Defensive midfield: N’Golo Kante
Though he’s small in stature, Kante’s role in France’s midfield has been massive. With a sophisticated ability to read opponents’ attacks (he’s recovered 58 balls), the unsung Chelsea midfielder has been the perfect partner to Paul Pogba for Les Bleus. Not only does he afford Pogba the freedom to push forward, but Kante’s quietly excellent form also saves the Manchester United man from having to overexert himself defensively.
Centre-midfield: Luka Modric, Paul Pogba
Arguably no one in Croatia’s squad has been more influential in its fairy-tale run than Luka Modric. The Real Madrid maestro’s two goals at the tournament are tied with Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic for the most among Croatia’s squad, with one of those a magnificent strike to put Argentina away in a 3-0 group-stage win. And though only one of his 368 completed passes has resulted in an assist, Croatia’s captain can’t be left unchecked for a second with the ball at his feet. At 32, Modric is likely playing in his last World Cup, yet he’s still played 604 of the 630 minutes of Croatia’s incredible run.
While Pogba is likely to represent Les Bleus at a few more international tournaments, none may serve as a more timely reminder of the Frenchman’s quality than this one. Frequently at odds with club manager Jose Mourinho this past season (he even lost his starting role), the 25-year-old has reminded his biggest critics that he can still take over a match. Though he’s yet to record a goal or assist in Russia, Pogba’s performances seem to dictate how brightly France shines.
Left-wing: Ivan Perisic
Those who were unaware of Perisic’s ability entering the World Cup have gotten a lesson on the Inter Milan winger’s talents. The 29-year-old was instrumental in Croatia’s semi-final victory. After scoring his country’s opening goal, he nearly added a second four minutes later, when his left-footed strike hit the post. And it was Perisic’s header that eventually sprung Mandzukic loose behind John Stones for the winning goal.
Centre-forward: Mario Mandzukic
A Croatian hero thanks to his match-winning goal against England, Mandzukic has caught fire in the knockout stages after failing to show up on the scoresheet in the group stage. The Juventus forward was in the right place at the right time in the round of 16 against Denmark, firing home the equaliser after a series of bounces in the Danish box. He then added an assist in the quarter-final against Russia before his 109th-minute goal against England helped send his country to its first-ever World Cup final.
Right-wing: Kylian Mbappe
It’s hard to imagine that Mbappe, whose move from Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain was made permanent this summer for a reported €155-million base fee, could have broken out any more than he already has, but the 19-year-old French phenom has taken the World Cup by storm. Thanks to his two goals against Argentina in the round of 16, Mbappe became the first teenager since Brazil legend Pele in 1958 to score twice in a single World Cup match. While he’s unlikely to secure the Golden Boot (he would need a hat-trick in the final just to tie current leader Harry Kane), the PSG star is a lock for the tournament’s Best Young Player award.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)