French players celebrate with the trophy after defeating Croatia in the final of the FIFA World Cup 2018 on July 15, 2018, at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

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Hartnett: France's Strong Defense, Finishing, Focus Led To World Cup Triumph

Won 2nd Title By Beating Croatia 4-2

Sean Hartnett
July 16, 2018 - 10:48 am
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The twists and turns of a World Cup final can deliver ecstasy or the cruelest fate. France’s 4-2 victory looks definitive on paper. But this was a case of a convincing final scoreline obscuring the drama that transpired over 90 minutes.

Croatian fans will feel a sense of injustice after their side dominated the opening 45 minutes, yet entered the break with an undeserved 2-1 deficit. Mario Mandzukic headed in a goal on his own end that handed France a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute. It wasn’t just Croatian supporters who felt aggrieved after Antoine Griezmann appeared to dive to earn the free kick that ultimately led to the goal. Neutral viewers largely believed that Griezmann went down without contact.

It wasn’t long before Croatia evened the match. Ivan Perisic demonstrated a sublime first touch and rocketed an equalizing goal 10 minutes later. Another contentious moment emerged in the 35th minute when the video assistant referee was consulted. Perisic was found to have committed a handball, but some will have found the decision to be harsh. Griezmann slotted away the penalty to put France ahead with halftime beckoning.

Controversy aside, France was deserved winners and proved it in the second half. The French were the more clinical and better organized of the two sides. Paul Pogba and second-half substitute Steven Nzonzi disrupted the rhythm of Croatia’s dual midfield maestros Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Pogba performed like a talent worthy of the 89.3 million-pound ($118.5 million) transfer fee spent by Manchester United in 2016. His box-to-box energy, darting forward runs, disciplined positioning, long-range passing and composed finishing is proof of his world-class potential.

His second-chance effort on France’s third goal in the 59th minute was struck with finesse and accuracy. Griezmann, who assisted Pogba’s goal, was named Man of the Match, but Pogba appeared to be more deserving.

Kylian Mbappe constantly threatened Croatia with his blistering pace and trickery. The comparisons to French legend Thierry Henry seem to be justified, and the 19-year-old could be on the track to greatness. His long-range drive increased France’s advantage to 4-1. Following the match, he received the tournament’s Best Young Player Award.

Usually composed French keeper Hugo Lloris committed a rare blunder with a poor touch and a lack of desperation to clear the ball from his box, allowing Mandzukic to poke the ball into the net. The goal provided Croatia a lift, but a two-goal deficit with 21 minutes remaining was too large of a hurdle for Croatia to overcome.

Despite Croatia’s 66 percent possession, France was able to hold firm defensively and thrived on the counterattack. That counterpunching style is what won France its second World Cup title. Its 17.3 conversion rate was the highest of any team to attempt 50 or more shots at the 2018 World Cup.

This French team did not win with the style and panache of the 1998 champions that lifted the World Cup on home soil. This group won through steadfast defending, mental sharpness and clinical finishing.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey​