PAUL POGBA pulled the trigger on the goal of his life today as a fabulous World Cup got the final it deserved.
The Manchester United midfielder’s inch-perfect finish on the hour put the French 3-1 up and gave them breathing space against a Croat side who ran themselves into the ground.
When Kylian Mbappe then made it four, it looked like the tournament was set to end in a rout.
But to the dramatic backdrop of an electrical storm and a bizarre second half pitch invasion, a Hugo Lloris howler let the underdogs dream again.
This time, though, now even they could produce a miracle – and Les Bleus had a second title to add to the one coach Didier Deschamps lifted as skipper 20 years ago.
The Croats had been in about French ankles from the off, but it was a whack at Antoine Griezmann’s heels that was to put them behind on 17 minutes.
As soon as Marcelo Brozovic took him down – 30 yards out and just right of centre – the little playmaker fancied the situation.
And for good reason, too, because when he floated his delivery right down the middle of the box and into a frantic crowd scene, poor old Mario Mandzukic got the slightest touch off the top of his head to leave keeper Danijel Subasic helpless.
Chessboard shirts argued in vain with Argentine ref Nestor Pitana that it shouldn’t have been a free-kick in the first place, but it was in all vain. Pretty soon, they’d have even better reason to be in the whistler’s face.
Before then, though, a moment to send their massed ranks of fans in the stadium and four million more back home into dreamland.
It came from another free-kick midway inside the opposition half, this time Luca Modric playing it beyond the far post to meet the run of right-back Sime Vrsaljko, whose nod back across goal was poked by Ivan Rakitic into the path of the onrushing Ivan Perisic.
His first touch, with his right foot, put a string of defenders off-balance and won him half a yards of space.
His second, hard and low and true with the left, ripped beyond Hugo Lloris to set this final properly alight.
Rain was hammering on the roof now, TV cameras being covered in tarpaulins, fans in the front rows reaching into bags for kagouls.
In the distance, the first rumbles of thunder that had threatened all day could finally be heard.
While down on the pitch, another storm was brewing.
Twelve minutes from the break, a corner on the French right. As Griezmann lines it up, Blaise Matuidi makes a darting run to the near post, meeting the flighted ball for a header against Perisic and behind.
Instantly, blue shirts scream for a handball ref Pitana hasn’t seen. Replays show that, yes, it hit Perisic’s left palm – but it was by side and he was surely too close to Matuidi to be penalised.
After a long, long wait, the ref got the word in his ear that it was worth reviewing. As soon as that happened, Croatian hearts sunk, because there was no way he COULDN’T give the spot kick.
Again they moaned and groaned, as much to unsettle the taker as anything else. But when that taker is Griezmann, you’re dealing with a man whose veins run with ice.
Subasic was already diving left and the little man stroked the ball down the middle.
Thunder was rolling in across Moscow now, a dramatic backdrop to a match buzzing with more electricity all the time.
Back hammered Croatia, a low Perisic cross running to Ante Rebic, who held his head as his miskicked bobbled harmlessly to Lloris.
Soon after half-time, the same pair combined again, this time Rebic connecting perfectly only for the keeper to fly and tip over.
Then, a brilliant 60-yard Modric pass for Perisic, the faintest toe-end from Raphael Varane diverting the flight and Lloris racing out to chest clear.
Croatia, to no one’s surprise, were not going down without a fight – but suddenly, France broke at blinding pace, Paul Pogba sending Kylian Mbappe in behind Domagoj Vida and forcing Subasic to sprint and slide and block.
And now, bizarrely, the pitch invasion. Four halfwits in what looked like official uniforms, racing on from the end where Croats fans were massed, trying to hug players who were more likely to punch them.
Dejan Lovren shoved one to the deck as stewards ran from all corners, dragging the intruders off for what you cannot imagine was a stern ticking off and a £10 fine.
If the Luzhniki Stadium has an awful lot of stairs to fall down, though, it soon also had a mountain for Croatia to climb as Pogba’s magic moment came.
It was Mbappe down the right again, twisting and turning and cutting back for Griezmann.
When he fed the midfielder, his first shot was charged down, but he calmly curled the rebound with his left foot to give Subasic no chance.
You could almost hear the energy draining out of the Croats now, legs heavy as Mbappe ran at them eight minutes later before reversing a right-footed shot beyond the keeper for the fourth.
But whenever they’ve been toiling out here, they’ve always had at least one man in their ranks still willing to go the extra mile – in case, the muscular Mandzukic, charging down Umtiti’s passback to Lloris and getting a foot in the way as the keeper tried to sidestep him.
From absolutely nowhere, they had a glimmer of hope in a quite remarkable football match.
A glimmer, though, was all it would be.
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