Deschamps redeemed as France win World Cup final for the ages
"Today, I say it with more conviction: this was the best World Cup ever."
That was FIFA president Gianni Infantino in Moscow, 48 hours before France would play out an absolutely enthralling triumph over Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium. Not many would disagree with him. Didier Deschamps certainly won't.
Russia 2018, the tournament of surprises, had one more up its sleeve for the showpiece clash in the capital. A France team so often accused of being too cautious, too afraid to unleash their attacking potential, smashed Croatia with a second-half attacking salvo. The same France team so widely praised for an imperious defence handed Croatia two goals, two lifelines, on a plate.
It was a welcome shock. It was also vindication for Deschamps, who nailed his tactics once again, save for a couple of rash moments. Twenty years on from lifting the trophy as a player, France's coach got his hands back around the glistening golden globe, a triumph to smack his critics into the dirt once and for all.
3 - Didier Deschamps has become the third person to win the World Cup as a player and as manager after Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer. Champion.#WorldCupFinal #WorldCup #FRA #CRO pic.twitter.com/H3zrhkx9rO
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 15, 2018
The Euro 2016 final defeat on home soil has been an open wound in this team. It wasn't only the loss to unfancied Portugal, but the manner of it - substitute Eder scoring in extra time to win it for Fernando Santos and his parked bus - that has stung for two years.
Paul Pogba amazingly admitted they were complacent after beating Germany in the last four. Hugo Lloris promised it wouldn't happen again this time. Deschamps made sure of it.
France have adopted a certain brand of 'tournament football' that has upset a lot of viewers in Russia. Blessed with attacking talent as they are, it was felt they should have been blowing teams away, rather than systematically wearing them down with well-placed gusts. Eden Hazard even claimed he would "rather lose with this Belgium than win with this France" after Samuel Umtiti's header settled their semi-final.
But Deschamps persisted, Portugal still, probably, on his mind. He would not yield to the arrogant demand to open up his side and risk another final defeat - not until they had control.
That came through Antoine Griezmann, as it always seems to do. The man of the match here, as he was in the Europa League final for Atletico Madrid, is truly the master of the big occasion. There might be a Ballon d'Or to come.
France weathered the storm, both Croatia's early pressing and the literal thunder and lightning overhead, and snatched an 18th-minute opener when Mario Mandzukic headed Griezmann's devilish free-kick into his own net.
Ivan Perisic levelled but handed Griezmann a chance to restore the lead, his blocking of the ball with his fingers leading to a VAR-assisted penalty call. Griezmann waited, stared down Danijel Subasic and the thousands of Croatia fans behind the goal, and scored one of the coolest penalties you'll ever see.
3 - Antoine Griezmann is only the 3rd player to score in a European clubs final & in a World Cup final in a single season after Gerd Müller (Germany & Bayern Munich) in 1974 & Jorge Valdano (Argentina & Real Madrid) in 1986. Historic. #FRACRO #WorldCupFinal pic.twitter.com/fRero5TdKM
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) July 15, 2018
Then, and only then, did Deschamps relent. France were liberated on the break. A minute before the hour mark, Griezmann killed a loose ball and laid it back to Paul Pogba, who killed the game. The irrepressible Kylian Mbappe added a fine fourth, staking his claim for the Best Young Player prize and reminding everyone why Deschamps chose him over Anthony Martial and others in this squad.
There was still time for a Lloris error to make the final minutes uneasy, but France did not panic. Two years ago, they let the occasion, the frustrations, get the better of them, but that was simply impossible now.
Deschamps has been steadfast in turbulent waters for two years. He learned the hard way what it takes to coach a team to international success and came back to deliver. When the dust settles after this magnificent World Cup, perhaps the best there has ever been, credit for the France coach should not lie forgotten.