It is a World Cup final few would have predicted.
Croatia face France at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday aiming to win a first major international trophy, while their opponents are in a third final in six World Cups and attempting to add a second title to the one they won in Paris 20 years ago.
The man leading them, Didier Deschamps, is in his third tournament in charge and hoping to become only the third person to lift the trophy as a player and manager.
His counterpart, Zlatko Dalic, has been Croatia manager for just nine months but is 90 minutes from winning football’s biggest prize and completing one of the more unlikely triumphs in World Cup history.
The view in Croatia: ‘Dream, dream, dream’
With a population of 4.17 million, you would think Croatia would be the smallest country to have reached a World Cup final. But that accolade goes to Uruguay, who won the inaugural competition in 1930 with an estimated population of about 1.7 million.
At 20th in Fifa’s world rankings, Dalic’s side are the lowest-ranked team to reach a World Cup final, and the 13th different nation to do so.
This is the furthest they have advanced in the competition, bettering their third-place finish 20 years ago, when their brilliant run was ended at the last four stage by… eventual champions France.
While this year’s semi-final victory shattered dreams in England, it sparked wild celebrations in Zagreb and beyond, with thousands of fans pouring onto the streets, singing, letting off flares and waving red, white and blue flags.
“Dream, Dream, Dream! Croatia are in the World Cup final,” said the Sportske Novosti newspaper, adding Dalic “has entered into legend” after surpassing the achievement of the 1998 team.
“The Fiery Ones are in the final, the nation is in a trance – one more step to the title!” said the Jutarnji List.
Davor Kovacevic, journalist with the Sportarena website, wrote: “They say we didn’t excite in our games. Who cares? We excited ourselves, that’s what matters. As if France did excite. And they are worth three to four time more than us.”
The view in France: ‘Healing the scar of 2016’
France reached the final of their home European Championship in 2016 but, despite being strong favourites to beat Portugal, they fell short.
The memories of that defeat are driving the team – and the country – this time.
The SudOuest newspaper sees Sunday as a chance to heal the “scar” of two years ago. This time, they say, “the context is different: the players have grown, and there’s Kylian Mbappe”. The forward is “on fire”, “inspires fear”, and is one of France’s “many weapons capable of breaking the Croatian siege”.
The French media have paid particular attention to their team’s extra preparation time for the final. They played their semi-final 24 hours before Croatia’s, and all their knockout ties have been won in normal time, while their opponents have needed extra time (and penalties twice) in each of their three games since the group stage.
According to Le Figaro, that is a “godsend” against a “talented and promising team capable of posing problems”.
For Le Point, it all comes down to the players’ states of mind. Despite the extra time, Croatia’s mental state has been “faultless” and the team “seems unbeatable”.
Perhaps it will be a game won by individual brilliance…
Battle for the Golden Ball
This tournament was considered a last chance for two greats of their generation – Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi – to dominate a World Cup.
But both were eliminated at the last-16 stage, leaving the way clear for other players to make their mark and win the prestigious Golden Ball award for the competition’s best player.
And while there have been some superb individual performances, no-one has stood out to such an extent they are a certainty for the prize.
Could the final be the deciding factor? Interestingly, it is 24 years (six tournaments) since the Golden Ball winner came from the champions.
Maybe this is the year that changes. Croatia midfielder Luka Modric has received plenty of praise for his performances so far, including a man-of-the-match showing against Argentina in the group stage.
France forward Mbappe announced himself on the biggest stage with two goals to send the Argentines home in a showing filled with pace, trickery and skill. He will be looking to become only the second teenager to score in a World Cup final, after Brazil legend Pele in 1958.
A match-winning display in the final could tip the balance in their favour, while the same could be said for Antoine Griezmann, who is tied on three goals with Mbappe. Both players know a hat-trick would take them level on six goals with England’s Harry Kane in the battle for the Golden Boot.
Croatia centre-back Dejan Lovren splits opinion among supporters, but you can’t argue with his record this season.
If he plays, Lovren will become only the second player to play in the Champions League final for an English club and the World Cup final in the same year, after Thierry Henry in 2006.
On that occasion, Henry ended up on the losing side in both matches, for Arsenal against Barcelona and France against Italy.
At the beginning of this season, Lovren was substituted by Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after just 31 minutes of their 4-1 defeat by Tottenham, having been run ragged by Kane at Wembley.
Lovren got his revenge by keeping the Spurs man quiet in the semi-final and could now end his season on the highest note possible.
“It’s something special for me,” Lovren is reported said. “From my point of view, people were saying I had a difficult season but I don’t agree with that.
“I showed that I took Liverpool to the Champions League final and now with my national team we are in the final.
“I think people should recognise that I’m one of the best defenders in the world and not just talk nonsense.”
But how do the numbers stack up?
Of all the defenders to play in the tournament, 29-year-old Lovren has won 32 aerial duels – only England’s Harry Maguire with 37 has won more – and has a 100% success rate from three tackles attempted.
Spare a thought for…
Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic.
The former Blackburn forward was sent home from the World Cup after he refused to come on as a substitute during his side’s opening game, a 2-0 defeat of Nigeria.
Now of AC Milan, Kalinic was sent out to warm up but said he could not take the field as he had a back injury.
Croatia were not allowed to replace him, leaving them with 22 players for the rest of the tournament.
And while Kalinic watches thousands of miles away from Russia, his team-mates have gone on to reach the biggest match of their career.