Modric penalty sinks French hopes of final four

Les Bleus will miss out on the Nations League semifinal stage after a 0-1 loss to Croatia

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World champions France were undone by an early Luka Modric penalty and stout defending from Croatia as they slipped to a 0-1 defeat at the Stade de France, leaving them winless from their four Nations League group matches so far. Last season’s winners of this competition now find themselves bottom of the group and facing relegation to League B.

 

Although not at full strength, on paper France looked the stronger team with the amount of talent packed in. But they were dealt an early blow by Croatia, Ibrahima Konate clipping Ante Budimir’s heels while a corner kick was being taken to give away a penalty within three minutes.

 

The peerless Modric stepped up and sent a fierce low penalty towards the bottom left corner. Goalkeeper Mike Maignan got a hand to the ball but was unable to deflect it far enough. He was left to kick the post in frustration as the jubilant Croatian players ran to their captain.

With Kylian Mbappe returning to the starting lineup to partner Karim Benzema up front, France went in search of an instant equalizer. Benzema was quiet on the night, but Mbappe buzzed around with menace. He produced France’s first shot on target in the sixth minute, spanking a half-volley from outside the box that was well caught by Ivica Ivusic in the Croatian goal.

 

Christopher Nkunku went close in the 27th minute with a long-ranger that flew not far wide of the post. The first half then ended with a couple of shots from Lucas Digne, both of which were deflected out for corners by Croatian legs.

Didier Deschamps decided to switch things up at half-time, replacing Boubacar Kamara and Jules Kounde with Aurelien Tchouameni and Benjamin Pavard. Tchouameni, newly signed by Real Madrid, looked to make an instant impact with a shot from range in the 47th minute. Ivusic again dealt with it easily.

 

A couple of minutes later, Budimir was sent through on goal and tried to lift his shot over Maignan. But the keeper palmed away easily enough and Budimir was flagged offside anyway.

 

In the 56th minute, Mbappe found himself in space about 25 yards out and to the right side of the box. His dangerous shot flew just wide of the far post, aided by a fingertip save from Ivusic. Mbappe again had a great chance on the hour mark, slipped into the box by Nkunku’s through ball. Under pressure from Martin Erlic, the PSG man’s shot from a tight angle hit the legs of Ivusic and deflected out for a corner.

France’s Kylian Mbappe was a handful for Croatia, but failed to score. (Photo by Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS)

France had shouts for a penalty rejected in the 66th minute after Digne fell over in the box in front of substitute Lovro Majer. The referee judged that there had been no contact and booked Adrien Rabiot for his protests.

 

Majer then had a great chance at the other end. Josip Brekalo went on a mazy dribble down the left before passing to Majer, whose shot from just inside the box was well saved by Maignan. The AC Milan keeper was again called into action in the 87th minute, getting low quickly to parry and catch Nikola Vlasic’s shot.

 

Croatia nearly gifted their opponents an equaliser in the 3rd minute of stoppage time. A chipped ball from Kingsley Coman, intended for Benzema, was instead headed back towards his own goal by Josip Sutalo. Ivusic saved his teammate’s blushes by diving full stretch to parry the ball out to safety. From the resulting corner, Konate headed France’s last chance wide.

“We had an inferiority complex against France after their win in the World Cup final and so to win at the Stade de France in front of 80,000 people against the world champions is extraordinary,” said Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic after the game. It was indeed a remarkable win for his team, who are second in the group on 7 points after 4 games. They will face Denmark and Austria at the end of September, with hopes of finishing first and thus qualifying for the semifinals.

 

France’s own hopes of the same went up in smoke after the defeat. In their 4 matches, they have drawn two and lost two, leaving them bottom of the group on 2 points. An insurmountable gap of 7 points to group leaders Denmark means Les Bleus will not defend their title. Instead, this time they will have to focus on not getting relegated to League B.

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