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Guest column: Why France's young, fresh legs will lead to World Cup victory

Canisius men's soccer coach Dermot McGrane will be serving as a guest correspondent for The Buffalo News during the World Cup. A two-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, McGrane has been at Canisius since 2011 after nine years as coach at Niagara. McGrane is originally from Leicester, England, and has been coaching at U.S. colleges since 1995. 

Fitness and fresh legs.

That is what I will be watching when France and Croatia meet in the 64th and final match of the 2018 World Cup on Sunday morning (11 a.m, Fox).

Croatia has played three consecutive overtimes games since July 1 and needed a goal in the 90th minute to defeat Iceland on June 26. Croatia likes to play a high-press style - an attacking formation employed by a team that defends high up the pitch and inside the opposition’s half. Playing this style forces players to run a lot more than normal.

After another overtime game against England in the semifinals on Wednesday, Croatia has to be worried about the quick turnaround, especially because it has one of the oldest rosters in the tournament.

France, on the other hand, has one of the youngest rosters in the field and it has not played an overtime game in the tournament. France has allowed just four goals, and three came against Argentina June 30 in the Round of 16, with Argentina’s last marker coming in the 90th minute. I think France’s youth and the extra day of rest will prove to be key in this match Sunday.

France has been incredible throughout the entire World Cup. It advanced to the final by defeating a very strong Belguim team, 1-0, on Tuesday. That was a tremendous game, and in my opinion, that contest was essentially the championship match. France has so many weapons and is so strong going forward, but it also has a tremendous defense.

Attacking midfielder Kylian Mbappé is only 19 years old, but you would never know it by watching him play. He is so athletic and so composed. He is the youngest French player to score at the World Cup, and he is just the second teenager to score twice in a World Cup match after he had two goals against Argentina. The other teenager to score twice in a World Cup game is Pelé. Mbappé draws a lot of comparisons to Pelé, and I think they’re much deserved.

Another French player to watch is N’Golo Kanté, who plays a fantastic holding midfield for the team. He is tough and calculating and he’s one of the best players in the world. He is the unsung hero for the French.

Croatia was 3-0 in group play. After winning in penalties vs. host Russia, Croatia defeated England,2-1, in extra time thanks to a goal by Mario Mandžukić in the 109th minute. I did not think Croatia was overly impressive against England, but is a team with a lot of mental toughness. That is an important trait to have at this point of the tournament – when a team just thinks it can win, that can push it to victory.

Croatia has three players with multiple goals scored in this year’s World Cup, including Mandžukić, but it hasn’t recorded a clean sheet since beating Argentina 3-0 on June 21 in the group stage. Croatia does have four goals on set-pieces, so France is going to have to be really good defensively there to take away one of Croatia’s top offensive threats.

Prediction

France will use its youth and freshness to win Sunday’s match and claim its second World Cup championship in the last six tournaments. France has been too good throughout the tournament, and its midfield and attack will be able to handle Croatia’s style of play. If Croatia is to win, it would be a massive upset. Mbappé has the best chance to awarded the Golden Ball, presented to the best player of the World Cup final.

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