Four weeks of gruelling competition, unbridled joy and unbearable heartbreak have brought us to this point: the 2018 FIFA World Cup final.
Thirty teams have fallen by the wayside in their quest for glory in Russia, leaving just two standing. France and Croatia will contest for sport's biggest prize on Sunday, July 15.
The host venue, the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, is no stranger to sporting events of critical, global importance, having hosted the 2008 Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United, plus portions of the 1980 Olympics. It is the country's sporting cathedral and a fitting setting for the final showdown.
Both sides arrive at this stage unbeaten—Croatia with six wins, France with five wins and one draw—but neither have simply waltzed it. The Vatreni have endured extra-time in each knockout game played, while France required defensive perfection to progress past Belgium in the semi-finals.
There's genuine star power in each cast—France are stacked from back to front and Croatia are in possession of a remarkable midfield—ensuring this one has all the ingredients of a potential great.
The Anatomy of France
The harder the opponents France have faced, the better they've become. That slow start against Australia is a bygone memory, with the last three performances—against Argentina, Uruguay and Belgium—displaying prowess, confidence and maturity.
It's not necessarily that Les Bleus are raising their level in accordance with their opponent—though there often is quite a bit of that in football—it's more that strong opponents allow them to play the tight, measured game they want to.
Thibaut Courtois was scathing of this following Belgium's elimination earlier in the week, branding France "just an anti-football team," per Sporza (h/t the Guardian).
This method features a solid midfield made up of the insatiable N'Golo Kante, a disciplined Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi bridging two roles to great effect. He's both left wing and central midfield, but also neither, tucking in off the ball then sprinting outward on the counter-attack.
Striker Olivier Giroud is yet to score a goal at this tournament, but he has only played poorly once, against Belgium, and is the linchpin that structures France's attack. The back four are combative, robust and excellent at their defensive trade, but the full-backs are lacking a little something moving forward.
The anatomy of their lineup genuinely suits their style; it has been branded as negative by some, but you can't deny its overwhelming efficiency.
The Anatomy of Croatia
In terms of form and performance levels, Croatia are at odds with France. Whereas Les Bleus creaked into gear and took a while to find their groove, the Vatreni started brilliantly and have gradually tapered off.
The three bouts of extra-time have played a part in that, but even their performance against Denmark in the round of 16 felt a shadow of their group showings, and that was before the physical onslaught had kicked in.
Still, Zlatko Dalic's men have proved they can find a way to win, and it's sourced from their rather brilliant midfield.
Luka Modric has had one hell of a tournament, bested perhaps only by France's Kante, while Ivan Rakitic has helped share the load and Marcelo Brozovic has swept up behind.
Croatia have approached games at this World Cup like logic puzzles, often initially seeming stumped but finding the crack after a while and then moving to exploit it. The semi-final was a good example of that, with England initially on top before the Vatreni gradually worked out where the openings were and struck.
They mix the technical side with the physical side well; they're neat and tidy, but also massive, aggressive and able to force the issue if required.
Flashpoint 1: The ultimate midfield battle
Kante vs. Modric. Who's excited?
This match pits the best two central midfielders of the tournament against one another. Both have dominated every match they've played, but here, something is going to have to give.
Given Modric plays as the right-sided No. 8 in Croatia's 4-3-3, he should come into contact with Kante (and Matuidi) fairly often. France have done a good job blockading that flank and letting little through, with Argentina and Uruguay getting nothing out of it and even Kevin De Bruyne struggling from that area.
Kante's averaged 5.5 tackles and interceptions per game through six contests so far, by a distance the most of any player to have played a major part in these finals. Matuidi's started half the number of games, but he has averaged six per contest himself. He's more than won his spot in this side.
Modric naturally gravitates to the right side of the pitch and filters wide to the touchline, hoping to stretch open the channels and give his runners a sliver of space to infiltrate. Matuidi will have to track him all the way over, and Kante will have to cover the passing lanes and stop him picking apart the lines.
Going the other way, Modric's never-say-die defensive attitude has impressed just as much as his playmaking ability, and he'll be tracking Matuidi's darts into the wide areas diligently.
It's going to be an intense, physical battle; whoever wins puts their team in a great position to succeed.
Flashpoint 2: Someone stop Sime!
It's not just Modric's drifting to the right that makes that flank Croatia's most dangerous; it's the presence of Sime Vrsaljko, too.
The right-back was in immense form against England despite going into the game as an injury doubt, motoring forward well, causing Ashley Young all sorts of issues defensively, sending the cross in for the equaliser and even clearing a goal-bound John Stones header off the line at 1-1.
Vrsaljko has become a key cog for the Vatreni when it comes to moving the ball forward. They'll always try to utilise Modric and Rakitic first and foremost, but spreading it wide to their right-back with space to run into has gained them territory and pushed them into excellent positions.
Against England, Croatia utilised a fair amount of left-sided buildup, coaxing their opponents into one half of the pitch before switching it to Vrsaljko in space or one-on-one with Young. It was a method that tired England out and made them slow to get out to block the cross, which eventually proved their undoing.
Lucas Hernandez (LB) and Matuidi (LCM/LW) will be a much sterner test than Young and Dele Alli were, but if Croatia can work the switch well, Vrsaljko will be one-on-one with Lucas and have space to hit at speed. That's bad for Les Bleus.
Flashpoint 3: Pesky long balls
Ahead of Croatia's semi-final with England, we highlighted the Vatreni's susceptibility to longer passes into the channels. Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida are a little hit and miss in dealing with them, and they struggle with speedy runners in those areas—as evidenced once again by Raheem Sterling's effective runs in the first half.
Didier Deschamps will have been watching that and drawing up a similar but ultimately more threatening strategy. We've seen Paul Pogba drop dimes over the top of defences all tournament long, seeking out the penetrative runs of Kylian Mbappe or the sneaky darts of Antoine Griezmann. There'll be opportunities for him to carry on doing so on Sunday.
Vida, along with left-back Ivan Strinic, is going to find keeping Mbappe quiet very difficult. He's the fastest player at the tournament, makes incisive runs in behind and also carries the ball at speed well, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Strinic plays a cautious game in order to put two markers on Mbappe at all times.
Even if they somehow managed to cancel Mbappe out, Griezmann will make the most of all the attention being on his compatriot. He'll either see room to run into or pockets of space to occupy that are just out of reach for defenders, and his one-touch play to keep France's tempo high has impressed this tournament.
Undeterred by Courtois' comments, France will hope to play this final the same way they did the semi-final: reactively and cautiously. They know it will open up the counter-attack, and they're probably banking on Croatia wanting to see more of the ball so they can control the tempo—they have, after all, played 90 extra minutes over the knockout stages.
The problem for Croatia is, playing the way they likely wish to will only play into France's hands.
All statistics via WhoScored.com