In a World Cup defined by upsets and underdog progressions, Croatia have outdone the rest by reaching the final. Along the way, Zlatko Dalic's side have seen off the likes of England, Argentina and hosts Russia, growing in confidence as the tournament has gone on.
With an abundance of individual talent, the only question mark over this team was whether they were truly united. Any notion that disharmony back home would prevent them on the pitch has, however, been dispelled by a series of impressive showings.
Croatia have not had it all their own way – all three of their knockout wins have come after extra time, and two of them came after penalties. Apart from a 3-0 thrashing of Lionel Messi and Co. in the group stage they haven't truly looked like potential world champions, but they nonetheless have the opportunity to prove themselves just that on Sunday.
Here we analyse what Croatia must do in order to beat France in the final.
1) PRESS HIGH
Croatia's best wins in this finals have come thanks in large part to a coherent and effective pressing game. Their humbling of Argentina came after their pressing effectively split their opposition's system in two, while their turnaround extra time victory over England was the result of an intense high press that forced their opposition into aimless long balls, allowing Croatia to gain control of possession and, in turn, the match.
Dalic's side press in a man-oriented fashion, with both of the outer central midfielders – assuming they play a central three – pushing up to help lone striker Mario Mandzukic in applying pressure to the opposition's first line of build-up. Simultaneously, both wingers – Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic – look to discourage passes out to the opposition full-backs or wing-backs.
This approach should be retained for the final against a French team who had trouble building possession through the thirds long before the tournament got underway. France's full-backs often look to push high, with N'Golo Kante regularly dropping back to create a three-man back line with the two centre-backs. Croatia, therefore, can press France in the same way they pressed England, with the aim not only of stultifying their opponent, but of creating counter-attacking opportunities high up the pitch.
2) GO WITH A MIDFIELD THREE
As discussed above, Croatia have varied their setup at times in this tournament, going with 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 systems. However, given how clearly the latter shape works for them, it is a must that they opt for the 4-3-3 against France.
One obvious benefit this shape should give them is a numerical overload centrally. With Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic joined by Marcelo Brozovic in the centre, this trident can provide the dynamism and control necessary to help play out from the back against a fairly passive French defence. It is absolutely vital, however, that the trio don't all drop back at once, as they have done at times, as this will leave them completely devoid of central presence to play through and fail to threaten the France block.
Modric, Rakitic and Brozovic can move to offer penetrative passing options to their centre-backs and one another, helping Croatia to build possession and break the lines. They could also suck the French midfield in, leaving space out wide for switches of play and the galloping forward runs of their full-backs, particularly Atletico Madrid's Sime Vrsaljko down the right, to stretch the French block and create space inside or room for a cross.
3) RESTRAIN STRINIC
Defensively, France tend to line up in a lopsided 4-3-3 shape. While Blaise Matuidi on the left tucks inside and stays firmly in the midfield line, Kylian Mbappe on the right remains higher and wider. This may look strange, but there is a strategic reason behind it: getting Mbappe forward as quickly as possible on the counter-attack.
Many teams have tried and failed to stop Mbappe at this tournament. Indeed, in transitions, where he has space to exploit and pace to burn, the young forward is almost unstoppable. But Croatia cannot ignore the threat he poses in the hope it goes away – they must move to counter the French counter, so to speak.
One way of doing this may be to have their left-back, Ivan Strinic, play a more restrained role in attacks. While Vrsaljko can continue to overlap down the right, Strinic could stay deeper in order to ensure Croatia are not numerically overloaded in transitions and mark Mbappe. Meanwhile, winger Ivan Perisic could stay near the touchline to ensure width down the left flank is provided even without the full-back's forward runs.