2018 World Cup: Croatia's Golden Generation Has Surged Beyond Expectations

Ivan Rakitic and Croatia's golden generation have been underappreciated for some time, but now they have the chance to bring home a World Cup crown.

Not many players have the chance to go out on top, but Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic all have that opportunity on Sunday. While their club careers are not over, the 2018 World Cup final is likely their last time on the World Cup stage. They are a part Croatia's golden generation of players who have always been considered collectively as dark horses. The opportunity that faces them on Sunday will raise their legacy to a deserved level.

Manager Zlatko Dalic has believed in his team, saying they are one of the best in the world even before they made their first trip to the final. He cited his players being on rosters for some of the biggest club teams in the world -- Modric with Real Madrid, Rakitic at Barcelona and Mandzukic on Juventus.

Clearly this team was underrated as their first group stage win only moved them to only 30/1 odds to win the World Cup. However, the play and leadership of the three aforementioned players has vaulted this side to new heights.

Luka Modric

Modric, the national team captain, has been crucial for Croatia in their run to the final.

While he is embroiled in a possible perjury conviction, he is irreplaceable from a footballing perspective. He has been the architect, with some calling him the player of the tournament given his commanding performances against Denmark and England. The Real Madrid midfielder is peaking in international competition at just the right time.

Modric now has over 100 international caps for Croatia. Perhaps that is why he has been so smooth on the ball, not showing any signs of stress. His passing has been a thing of beauty all tournament long and a major reason that Croatia, and especially Ante Rebic, have become a threat each time they have possession.

He is completing nearly 87% of all his passes while averaging almost 70 passes a game. That includes an impressive 6.8 long passes per match. Of Croatia's usual starters, Modric is their highest-rated player, per WhoScored, followed closely by Mandzukic and Rakitic. Modric has also been crucial in the penalty shootouts for Croatia.

With Modric being the provider, his anytime goal-scoring odds are 11/2, while he does have the best odds of any Croatia player to be man of the match. He is also averaging 21.8 FanDuel points per match, which is the second-most of any player in the final.

Ivan Rakitic

It is Rakitic who scored the deciding penalties against Denmark (Round of 16) and Russia (quarters) that propelled Croatia into the semifinals. He is the one being called on for the fifth penalty and has been called the heartbeat of the team by pundit and Croatian Slaven Bilic.

Rakitic is the youngest of the three Croatian stars, but he would be 34 when the World Cup is next held in Qatar. Yet, he is playing at an extremely high level due in part to the discovery of coeliac disease earlier this year. He is second on the team in chances created, behind only Modric.

Rakitic is one of the most durable players in the world, and the final will -- incredibly -- be his 71st match of the season. There were reports that he battled a sickness the night before the semifinal. He still managed to tie for the team lead in touches and be one of Croatia's most important players, as he has been all tournament long.

Rakitic is expected to assist on a Croatia goal, with 3/1 odds of doing so, if they can find a breakthrough against France. He is a long shot to score with 17/2 odds. He does average two shots per match in the World Cup, and he is completing a touch more than six long passes per game while contributing at least one key pass each match.

Mario Mandzukic

The odds give Mandzukic the best chance to score for Croatia, with the chances of it being a header sitting at 10/1. With our predictions having this as a low-scoring final, Mandzukic would be the player to back for a goal on the Croatian side. He tallied the winning goal in extra time against England, helping get Croatia to the final.

Mandzukic has a knack for scoring goals in big games, including a wonder strike in the 2017 Champions League final. Mandzukic is averaging 21.6 FanDuel points per game due in part to his two goals and one assist. He is firing off more than two shots and drawing two fouls per match.The versatile forward is also contributing defensively with a shade more than four defensive actions per match.

Mandzukic fits the role of traditional striker, something not as common in the sport anymore. He works hard for the team and gets beat up fighting for the ball. He does what is needed in order to allow Croatia to keep possession. He has been vital for this team, even if remaining largely out of the conversation, unlike Rakitic or Modric.