France have certainly been made to work for their place in another World Cup final. Morocco were wonderful yet again but a remarkable journey is at an end.
‘This is how you play against France,’ a thousand smug voices collectively screamed into the night. Get at them. Take the game to them. Don’t give them a minute to breathe. And, of course, ultimately still lose.
They have not reached four of the last seven World Cup finals and two European Championship showpieces in that time by accident. They are, if not an excellent team, then a collection of stunningly talented individuals whose durability defies convention, with a manager who has grown into the role magnificently.
Morocco were typically phenomenal. They did little wrong as their remarkable journey was stopped at the penultimate hurdle. There has been more than an element of patronisation in how their historic run has been covered in places but this was one last performance of a lifetime under the sort of bright lights to which they ought to become accustomed.
Azzedine Ounahi cannot remain unearthed at Angers for much longer; Sofiane Boufal should not be left abandoned at Ligue Un’s bottom club either. Fiorentina will cross their fingers and hold on to Sofyan Amrabat for dear life. Graham Potter might have liked the look of Hakim Ziyech. Yahia Attiyat Allah has only played eight career club games outside of his home nation and there will be a fair few teams who wish to change that.
But while those players showed yet more to suggest they belong at this level on a more permanent basis, France have already operated there for long enough not to be knocked off course. Not when they conceded first against Australia in their opener. Not when Denmark gave them a game. Not when Tunisia forced a rethink of their squad depth. Not when Poland started brightly. Not when England had them on the ropes. Not here, when perhaps second-best overall again.
France have a tendency to endure and a belief that only comes with having crossed that finish line before. And that can be impossible to put down for good.
The second semi-final of the 2022 World Cup could be summed up by two moments at either end of the game but the same part of the pitch, coincidentally both occurring in the fourth minute – one in the first half and another deep into second-half stoppage-time.
France took the sort of early lead the neutral must have dreaded. The wintry breath of the last punter to frantically point out Morocco had not conceded a single goal scored by an opposition player at the tournament thus far had barely settled in the air by the time Theo Hernandez finished cleverly. Antoine Griezmann’s intelligent movement unzipped the defence, his cutback facilitated two blocked Kylian Mbappe shots and, when the ball squeezed out to Hernandez, Achraf Dari hacked at thin air while trying to clear on the line.
Morocco almost delivered a moment for their raucous support to cherish. Abde Ezzalzouli ghosted past two defenders and drove into the area, pulling Hugo Lloris out and lofting the ball back towards Ounahi. His strike was diverted into the path of fellow substitute Abderrazak Hamdallah, whose nudge towards goal was halted a couple of yards from goal by Jules Kounde, with Lloris beaten.
Call it the luck of the draw, the toss of a coin or those fine margins that seem to favour France more often than not. But those two instances rather neatly underlined the intangible difference between these sides.
What unravelled in the middle of those bookends was engrossing and engaging. Olivier Giroud hit the post. Ounahi forced a fine save. Boufal was booked in an incident many felt was worthy of a Morocco penalty instead. Giroud and Mbappe both wasted Aurelien Tchouameni’s hard work by missing presentable chances. Jawad El Yamiq, centre-half that he is, and whose mistake in stepping out led to the France goal, struck the woodwork with an overhead kick from a half-cleared corner.
Even before the game, Nayef Aguerd pulled out of the warm-up and had to be replaced at the last minute by Dari, while a blatantly unfit Romain Saiss was substituted in the 21st minute as Walid Regragui switched his formation back from the 3-4-3 he gambled with at the start.
France had their own issues. Youssouf Fofana took the place of Adrien Rabiot and Ibrahima Konate deputised for Dayot Upamecano – with the suggestion emerging that England players had given the absent pair flu.
That was not the evening’s only mention of the Three Lions. The BBC dedicated much of half-time to a ludicrously delayed England post-mortem, as if a dissection of the actual World Cup semi-final that was unfolding before them came second to The Mood Of The England Camp.
Between that and the tiresome jabs from some quarters about how Gareth Southgate and his players were being shown how it’s done, England were very much the third wheel in a tie brilliant enough not to warrant one.
Half time of every World Cup match on BBC: Let’s talk about England’s next match
Half time of semi final on BBC now England are out: Let’s catch up with the England team
— Ben Isaacs (@tweetsfromben) December 14, 2022
The break seemed to embolden Morocco. After one glorious move on the right resulted in a Boufal cross which was barely repelled, they came down the left for Attiyat-Allah to almost square for Youssef En-Nesyri a matter of yards out.
For neither the first nor last time, the impeccable Ibrahima Konate was on hand to clear.
But Morocco pressure built and the head of steam was reaching a crescendo which made a goal inevitable. The only uncertainty was for which team: Regragui’s side were attacking with confidence and skill, but lacked that clinical touch; France were wobbling but their counter-attacking danger is constant and fearsome.
Griezmann almost slid Mbappe in. Boufal worked his way to the byline but saw his cutback redirected by the Atletico Madrid player, who might stand alone as Lionel Messi’s rival for the Golden Ball. The gritty Griezmann dug in more than anyone, intercepting on the edge of his own area and making more clearances (3) than any player except for Konate (4).
Mbappe played a role of sorts in the opener but was otherwise peripheral, most notably being absolutely – and cleanly – clattered by Amrabat as he attacked thunderously down the left. It made Eric Dier versus Sergio Ramos look tame.
Didier Deschamps did help restore some balance with his introduction of Marcus Thuram for Giroud, the Gladbach forward helping relieve pressure down France’s left. Mbappe is a sensational player but his defensive coverage leaves everything to the imagination. Yet that substitution also permitted him to move central and eventually settle the game.
Shortly after Hamdallah danced into the area but failed to pull the trigger, France showed their killer instinct. Thuram and Mbappe linked up on the left, the latter dazzled with his footwork and sneaked in a shot which deflected into the grateful and unmarked path of Randal Kolo Muani. Morocco were beaten but not broken; they had six unanswered shots from the 86th minute onwards in search of a consolation which still might not have represented the sum total of what they actually deserved.
France will scoff, much as a reigning champion should, at the idea they merited anything less than a place in a consecutive World Cup final. Morocco were incredible and fought like warriors, but fate appears to have decreed a Messi v Mbappe sportswashing spectacular.