We have seen countless outstanding performances already at this year’s World Cup, both individually and collectively, across all positions on the pitch. From Kylian Mbappé’s explosion onto the global scene to Japan’s heartbreaking heroics against Belgium to 38-year-old Sergei Ignashevich’s confident, stuttering penalty past David De Gea. The World Cup is the perfect stage for players of all shapes and sizes to show their class.
Sunday’s showdown between Croatia and France is sure to exemplify that with both teams possessing two incredibly talented, yet noticeably different, pairs of central midfielders. France’s engine room consists of exactly that: two unstoppable engines assembled in the gritty factory that is the Premier League. N’Golo Kanté, with his relentless running, tackling and reading of the game and Paul Pogba with his elegant, gliding runs driving France forward through the centre of the park are the heart of this French squad.
N’Golo Kanté has had as good a three seasons as anyone on the planet. Two Premier League titles (one with Leicester City(!)), an FA Cup and a PFA Player of the Year award, Kanté, a normally very reserved character, lets his accolades do the talking. Chelsea’s baby-faced bruiser has made a reputation for himself out of an insatiable desire to win the ball back. Always one step ahead and with pace and stamina to burn, it’s as if there are three of him on the pitch at times. Kanté’s unparalleled defensive abilities and simple passing game make him the perfect partner for Paul Pogba.
A very divisive character but undoubtedly an elite talent, Pogba makes up the other half of this athletic partnership. Given that Kanté can cover an entire football pitch on his own, Pogba has the freedom to roam forward with the ball, looking to launch splitting passes to either Griezmann or Mbappé. At six feet three, taking the ball away from the Parisian is near impossible, especially given Pogba’s exceptional technical ability. As displayed against Belgium, Pogba’s height and physique also add valuable defensive cover. Pogba was tasked with defending the towering Marouane Fellaini and stepped up to the plate. Despite countless balls being lumped towards the Belgian from corners and during open play, Pogba was omnipresent.
On the other hand, Croatia have a different, saucier and more technically-oriented midfield. Ivan Rakitić has been a regular in the Barcelona midfield for four years now, which says more about his technical prowess than words ever could. He has already shown at this tournament that he is a fine penalty taker, scoring the winning penalty in both Croatian shootouts so far, alongside his opening goal in the 2015 CL final. Rakitić is no stranger to a tackle either. Having played at the base of midfield at both Sevilla and Barca during his seven years in La Liga, he has honed the defensive side of his game.
In addition to his technical qualities, his creative passing, his wicked penalty taking and defensive abilities, he has a vast array of medals to look back on once he hangs up his boots. The Croat’s magnificent trophy cabinet contains three La Ligas, four Copa del Reys, and both UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League medals amongst others which include the FIFA Club World Cup.
Another serial winner, Luka Modrić, has been nothing short of sensational over the past three seasons, picking up three consecutive Champions League medals with Real Madrid and surely must be the favourite for third place in this year’s race for the Ballon d’Or.
The way the Zadar-born midfielder controls a game is mesmerising; he can receive the ball in any given situation, identify the space, take one, inch-perfect touch, and then play a perfectly weighted pass to a teammate within seconds. He does this all game long with the odd 40-yard raker and bit of fancy footwork thrown in for good measure.
Modrić has already had a wonderful World Cup, captaining Croatia’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’ all the way to the Final. They have shown immense mental character and physical strength to come through two penalty shootouts and three periods of extra time, despite many (in the media) assuming they would be walked over by their semi-final opponents due to ‘tired legs’.
On paper it might seem like the youth, exuberance and athleticism of France’s midfield will be far too much for Croatia’s over 30’s to handle. However, Croatia’s midfield maestros have shown time and time again that technical qualities shine through. Real Madrid’s recent CL victory over Liverpool epitomises this. Although Liverpool possessed pace and power in abundance, Modrić picked them apart and took control of the game.
So doubt Croatia all you want, after all, France’s squad is exceptional. But remember, Croatia’s team was doubted before and, in the end, it wasn’t football that went home.