After a month-long fight to the finish, two teams stand tall and will lock horns to call themselves the world champion for the next four years. It has been a World Cup of spectacular goals, of set piece mastery and surprises aplenty, like no tournament before.
While France travelled to the final with pragmatic football, securing wins without much sweat, Croatia’s path was all hard work with the team playing three gruelling 120 minutes (two finished on penalties) of knockout football.
“We did not insist on practice sessions. We have nothing to practise. We need relaxation and rest. We have some minor injuries but I hope we will overcome those today and all my players will be ready to play,” the team’s coach Zlatko Dalic said ahead of the final.
The team, however, has showed excellent resilience, a fighting spirit that has helped it to close out games. For Croatia — the smallest country to reach the final since Uruguay in 1950 — the final provides an opportunity to perhaps write the most glorious chapter in its young history. After gaining independence in 1991, it took just seven years to reach the semifinals in France 1998 and 20 years down the team is looking to exact sweet revenge as it faces its nemesis from then, France, in this summit clash.
“Win or lose tomorrow there will be a seismic event (in Croatia). This gives us strength and motivation. There can be no better moment for a player or a coach than tomorrow. Whatever happens, we will be happy and proud because we deserved it,” Dalic said.
“I do not give much thought to statistics and tradition and to head-to-head,” Dalic added. “Traditions are there to be demolished. Tomorrow is the final. We don’t care who is on the other side of the pitch. We are here to enjoy the final and give our best.”
Croatia, though, have to fight fatigue and also the eclectic pace of Kylian Mbappe, who has been France’s standout performer in an otherwise steady but unspectacular team that has banked on defensive solidity rather than attacking dynamism to navigate through the past six games.
Didier Deschamps, who won the World Cup as a captain in 1998, is expected to stick with his shrewd approach that has delivered so far with Oliver Giroud playing at the head of a 4-3-2-1 system.
“We have given ourselves this huge privilege of reaching the final of the World Cup and we want to win it. It is not nothing to win the semifinal of a World Cup after losing the Euro final,” he said, still trying to exorcise the demons of losing the 2016 Euro final to a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal at home.
Up against the goal threat of Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic and possibly the tournament’s best midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Deschamps will look to N’Golo Kante — the midfield enforcer — and Paul Pogba, who too has shown greater defensive discipline, to keep the opposition at bay, while Giroud will hold on to the ball upfront to create space for Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to run in to.
With no serious injury concerns upsetting their plans, both managers will call on their best XI for the game that will create immortals from one set of players and only heartbreak for the others.
It would be a mistake, though, to suggest that Croatia have got so far purely on effort and application, as a glance at the elite clubs represented by their probable starting team reveals.
There is technical ability in every department but, at the heart of it all, has been Luka Modric, who will win his 112th cap in the final.
The midfielder's controlled probing and passing combined with his constant buzzing movement and authority extracts the best of those around him.
France know that keeping him quiet is their key challenge, and in N'Golo Kante, they have the perfect man to do it.
Kante's calm smothering of rivals' attacks, brilliantly showcased in suppressing the threat of Belgium in the semi-final, gives the French defence more time to organise themselves, and they have consequently looked assured throughout.
Coach Didier Deschamps, who captained the team to their 1998 triumph operating as a “water carrier” knows better than most how essential that grunt work is to any team's success.
That is not to say that France do not have their own deadly weapons, with teenager Kylian Mbappe arguably the most exciting talent in the tournament.
Much weighs on his 19-year-old shoulders as his goalless frontline partner Olivier Giroud, for all his solid target-man displays, is not playing like a man to strike fear into the heart of an opponent.
France were hot favourites to beat Portugal in the Euro 2016 final in Paris but never got going and lost 1-0.
Deschamps says he still feels the pain of that defeat and he and his players will use it to ensure they treat Croatia with the utmost respect.
Like Dalic, he has praised the mental strength of his team, particularly in the testing semi against Belgium.
So, like many a final before, Sunday's showdown might begin as a battle of skill, but is likely to be decided by the battle of will.
World Cup: Road to the final
France play Croatia in the World Cup final at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday. Here is each team's path to the showpiece match.
Group stage: France had a helping hand from the video assistant referee (VAR) in their World Cup opener and a dash of good fortune when Paul Pogba's effort deflected off Australia's Aziz Behich and into the net to seal a 2-1 win. A low-key 1-0 victory against Peru put them in a prime position to qualify and a 0-0 draw against Denmark ensured they topped their group.
Last 16: A 4-3 win against Lionel Messi's Argentina was one of the standout matches of the tournament. Goals from Angel Di Maria and Gabriel Mercado cancelled out an early Antoine Griezmann penalty before Benjamin Pavard struck a wonderful equaliser and teenager Kylian Mbappe scored twice. A late Sergio Aguero goal was not enough to save Argentina.
Quarterfinal: France had far too much quality for a Uruguay side missing in-form forward Edinson Cavani, winning 2-0. Defender Raphael Varane headed France ahead towards the end of the first half and Griezmann scored thanks to a terrible error by goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
Semifinal: France knew they had a tough job on their hands to contain a Belgium side boasting Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku but for the second consecutive match they kept a clean sheet. Samuel Umtiti scored the winner in the second half from Griezmann's corner to take the team through to their third World Cup final as 1-0 winners.
Group stage: Croatia were one of only three teams in Russia to win all three of their group matches, beating Nigeria 2-0 in their opener and Iceland 2-1 in their final game. But their standout performance came in their second match, when they swept aside two-time winners Argentina 3-0 to make a huge statement of intent.
Last 16: Goalkeeper Danijel Subasic was the hero, saving three penalties in the shootout as Croatia squeezed past Denmark. Earlier, they had conceded a goal in the opening minute but hit back quickly to equalise through Mario Mandzukic. Luka Modric missed a penalty shortly before the end of extra-time but Croatia survived.
Quarterfinal: Croatia looked like they would have too much quality for a solid but limited Russia side but were again taken to extra-time and penalties. Goals from Andrej Kramaric and Domagoj Vida cancelled out a Denis Cheryshev opener but Croatia watched in agony as Mario Fernandes snatched a late equaliser. Ivan Rakitic struck the decisive penalty to send his side through to the semi-finals.
Semifinal: Croatia were again forced to dig deep against England. Zlatko Dalic's side looked in deep trouble after conceding a early goal in Moscow but regrouped to equalise midway through the second half. Despite dominating the second period they were unable to force a winner until deep into extra-time, when Mandzukic struck to break English hearts and win the match 2-1.
Luka Modric v N'golo Kante
While the fluid nature of the modern game ensures there are rarely exclusive head-to-head battles in the midfield, 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, and he sometimes has an eye for goal himself, often popping up with a raking shot from the edge of the box.
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.
(With inputs from AFP, Reuters)