Reasons why Croatia will win the World Cup
Croatia's Mario Mandzukic celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the semifinal match against England at the 2018 football World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein).
For the players who pushed their bodies to the limit to reach the World Cup final, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic has an apt motto.
"Who dares, wins" — a line popularized by special forces around the world.
The fighting spirit is engrained in a group of players whose psyche was forged growing up in a country ravaged by war as the former Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s.
"It made us resilient," Luka Modric said Saturday, "but we have to look into the future."
A World Cup final against France on Sunday could be the defining moment for Croatia since the 1991-95 war for independence that claimed about 10,000 lives and ravaged the economy.
"Without courage and fortitude," Dalic said, "they wouldn't have reached this final."
And it's why Croatia can end its remarkable World Cup trip by collecting its first major soccer trophy.
COMEBACKS: The lesson of this World Cup is not to write off Croatia. The group stage was unusually smooth, with a 3-0 victory over Argentina the signature result. Then it became harder. In all three knockout games so far, Croatia fell behind but came through.
It's hard to suppress Mario Mandzukic, who forced the game against Denmark in the round of 16 to a penalty shootout. Host Russia was defeated in another shootout. It looked even tougher against England in the semifinals when a fifth-minute goal was conceded.
But what bodes well for the final is that Croatia was more composed on the ball and created more chances as the game against England went on. It was little wonder Mandzukic produced an extra-time winner.
ENERGY: Don't tell Croatia's players they are too tired for Sunday's game. They'll just use it as inspiration.
Modric rallied the players before the semifinals by claiming the English media was underestimating Croatia and told them: "Today we will see who will be tired."
In fact, even the reporter hired by FIFA to cover Croatia for the tournament wrote on the official website: "Exhausted players pose the biggest problem for the Croatia coach." Modric's mind games worked, stirring the players.
But how much energy do they have left in a final push against a France squad that was among the three youngest of the 32 finalists? Mandzukic and Modric are both 32. Ivan Rakitic is only two years younger but remains influential in the midfield. While the average age of Croatia's squad is pushing 28, for France it's 26.
"All of my players tell me whether they are not 100 percent fit," Dalic said. "They will concede and tell me if they're not fit and they will miss the final. If they will be unable to give their all during the match I expect them to tell me."
M&Ms: Croatia wouldn't be in the final without the creativity of Modric and energetic attacking drive of Mandzukic, allied with Rakitic.
"If you took two or three players out of that, they wouldn't be the same," said Andy Roxburgh, a former Scotland player and coach who became technical director at UEFA and the Asian confederation. "They are almost like gelling the whole thing together, pulling the strings."
The orchestrator is Modric with his vision and passing accuracy.
"He's got some good foils around him," Roxburgh said. "But he is the guy waving the baton and making it all function."
Mandzukic's power and determination to regain the ball epitomizes the team's spirit in its 4-2-3-1 formation.
"His qualities are beyond question. His character, his fight, his commitment," Modric said. "When you see him run himself into the ground, he really perks up his teammates."
PHYSICALITY: If Dejan Lovren continues to use a physical approach to block the path of opponents, he could pay the price against France.
Harry Kane's path to the penalty area was blocked at one point in the semifinals by being bundled over by Lovren. The 30-year-old defender has to remember the video assistant referees will be watching if he tries any rough treatment to impede 19-year-old France forward Kylian Mbappe.