Full disclosure: Valour FC GM and Head Coach Rob Gale had his hopes pinned on a particular horse in this World Cup race. And that colt, a bit of a longshot when the derby began, has now faded after a wonderful run.
The silver lining for local soccer fans, perhaps, is this: now that his beloved England side has not advanced to Sunday’s World Cup final in Russia, Gale – arguably the most knowledgeable man about the game in this province – is free to offer a completely impartial take on what to expect from this intriguing France vs. Croatia finale.
What follows is Gale’s scouting report for Sunday’s tilt, with tips on who to watch and his pick to be holding the World Cup trophy when the final whistle sounds…
“It’s going to be a great football match,” began Gale. “Both teams have done exceptionally well and we’re looking at the two very best midfields in the tournament. There’s just a wealth of talent between these two teams in the midfield areas, and first and foremost, we should expect a very good game, which has been the theme of the entire tournament so far with only one nil-nil draw.
“There should be lots of attacking chances and I expect there to be goals.”
“They’ve got a number of ways to play and what I mean by that is they’ve got players who have fantastic, athletic quality, so they can work you and they can run at you and they’re good in transitions and counter-attacks. But then they also have very good technical players – Paul Pogba, (Antoine) Griezmann – who can beat you with skill and quality on the ball.
“They also have strength and size and talent in the back with (Raphaël) Varane, who scored in the quarterfinal; we just saw (Samuel) Umtiti score in the semifinal, both off of set pieces, off of headers. What I like about France is they can beat you in any number of ways, depending on what the game throws at them.”
Gale’s French players to watch:
- Midfielder N’Golo Kanté: “The joke about Kanté is ‘Water covers 70 percent of the earth; N’Golo Kanté covers the other 30 percent.’ He just runs and runs for fun.”
- Midfielder Kylian Mbappé: “I really like watching the 19-year-old. He’s set the tournament alive with his electrifying speed. We saw it against Argentina in the breakaway and they just couldn’t live with him. I don’t think Croatia will give him that amount of space and they’ll be very tough with, I imagine, some tough tackles on him early to try and nullify him and the speed threat he has. I believe he was the second-youngest player ever to score two goals in a World Cup game behind Pele, which just shows what company he’s in at the World Cup level already.”
- Forward Antoine Griezmann: “He’s a great dribbler of the ball. He’s got a good low-centre of gravity and gets into great goal-scoring opportunities. He’s just another fun player to watch.”
- French ‘X’ Factor players: “The two centre-backs, Samuel Umtiti and Raphaël Varane, are unexpected players who have come up with big goals.
But what’s typical in the finals is the real big boys, the best talent, shows up and I’ll be expecting that from Paul Pogba – he’s such a great athlete. He’s tall, he’s rangy and when he runs at players he’s frightening. He can be strong. I think this could be the final for Pogba where he could really stake his claim as one of the best players in the world.”
“Croatia has a very good, technical midfield. Good passers of the ball, good possession players. And what they also have is a very rigid and tough defence. It’s kind of an old-style, Eastern-European team, if you will, that also has that South American grit… they’re tough and robust and uncompromising in their defending quality, which then allows their attacking talent to take over.”
Gale’s Croatian players to watch:
- Midfielder Luka Modrić: “One of my (Canada Soccer) assistant coaches, Paul Stalteri, used to play with him at Tottenham, and he said the things this guy can do with the ball every single day is unbelievable. He’s got great close control, he can shoot, he’s very good one on one and is just a pleasure to watch. He controls the tempo of the game in the midfield.”
- Midfielders Ivan Rakitić and Ivan Perišić: “They are alongside Modrić and really are great, high level midfield players. They have the ability to get box to box; Perišić played a bit deeper alongside Rakitić, and Rakitić has adapted his game to play alongside Modrić. They’re such good, all-round footballers it really makes up a great combination in the midfield for Croatia.”
- Croatian ‘X’ Factor players: “(Mario) Mandžukić got the winner against England and he seems to pop up with key goals at key times. He’s done it at the club level with Juventus and everywhere he goes, he’s won. He’s a key cog for them.”
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE FINAL:
“The tough thing with Croatia is that with their three extra-time games they’ve effectively played one more match than anybody else at the World Cup. I thought they might not have the legs against England and all credit to them, they managed to dig out in the first half when England was on top and they really came on strong in the second half and into extra time and still found a way to win. It will be amazing if they can keep those energy reserves for one last game.
“I just think France has too much power. All the way along I thought it would be France and Germany and obviously Germany bit the dust early. Ever since then I’ve been saying France. I was admittedly hoping for France-England, but I thought France would have provided too much for them. It’s France’s to lose now.”