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World Cup: France down Morocco to keep title defense alive

December 14, 2022

Reigning world champions France ended Morocco's World Cup fairytale in the semifinals. Didier Deschamps' charges are now one game away from becoming only the third side ever to defend the World Cup title.

Theo Hernandez celebrates
France are looking to become only the third side in World Cup history to defend the titleImage: Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

For a side one match away from becoming the first team to win successive World Cups for half a century, France often don't seem to do a lot. But they do enough.

As it was against England in the quarters, so it was against Morocco in the semis. Despite conceding inside five minutes on Wednesday, the Atlas Lions were far from overawed by being the first African side to play in a World Cup semifinal. Roared on by a crowd full of fans, rather than spectators as has often been the case in Qatar, the underdogs gave everything they had.

But while the fans, the pioneering, the panache and the near misses mean something in the wider context, they don't win tournaments. 

France do. Since coach Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy as a crabby holding midfielder in 1998, France have been in two more world finals, winning one. They've also won and been runners-up in the Euros. These players, and this coach, know what it takes, and will meet Lionel Messi's Argentina in the final on Sunday.

"There is emotion, pride. Obviously it was another important step today, there will be a last one," Deschamps told French broadcaster TF1 aftewards. "We've been together for a month now, it's never easy, but it's been great so far and my players have been rewarded."

Mbappe draws the eye

Their early reward this time came from an unlikely source but was created by the threat of one much more familiar. Several Moroccan players swarmed round Kylian Mbappe in the fifth minute and managed to make the block. But in doing so, they neglected other areas of danger, and replacement leftback Theo Hernandez turned home the opener acrobatically on the bounce.

Theo Hernandez scores for France
Theo Hernandez was the right man in the right place at the right time to put France in the leadImage: Peter Cziborra/REUTERS

Five other sides had failed to score against Morocco in this tournament. It had taken France just five minutes. But if that looked to have scuppered Walid Regragui’s plans, they were rapidly and boldly redrawn. The Moroccan coach had gambled on three key defenders starting despite injuries: Nayef Aguerd didn't make it on to the pitch despite being named in the starting XI, Roman Saiss limped off in the first twenty minutes and Bayern Munich's Noussair Mazraoui didn't emerge after the break.

But none of this stopped Morocco. Azz-Eddine Ounahi took control of the midfield, and stung Hugo Lloris's palms with a long-range drive, Hakim Ziyech whipped in dangerous crosses, Sofyan Amrabat bit in to every tackle and Jawad El Yamiq struck a combination of post and Lloris' hand with a spectacular overhead kick.

Meanwhile, France were doing what they do — staying in the game and showing their quality in bright, brilliant flashes. Olivier Giroud powered against the post, Mbappe darted in behind and Griezmann prodded and probed at every opportunity.

Thuram turns back the clock

As the tension rose, and the clock ticked, Deschamps kept his head. When his '98 team needed to beat an underdog in the semifinal, they turned to a Thuram, with defender Lilian scoring two against Croatia. This time his son, Marcus, a much more attacking player, served a different purpose, allowing Mbappe to play through the middle and dampening the effect of Achraf Hakimi's runs down the right.

Thuram and Mbappe combined to to create the winner for Thuram's Bundesliga colleague Randal Kolo Muani to tap in at the back post.

"We tried and tried and tried and then unfortunately conceded the second goal. But I can only say 'bravo' to my team for the way they've played, said Regragui, before telling beIN Sport that: "the most important thing is to have given a good image, to have shown the world that Moroccan football exists, that we have great supporters. To reach the very, very high level, to go and win a World Cup, we'll still have to work but we're not very far away."

Ahead of the game, the coach had rejected any criticisms of his side’s counterattacking style, pointing to Spain’s dominance of possession in their defeat to his team. "It is amazing how football journalists love these figures about 60-70% possession, but it is no good if there are only two shots on goal," Regragui.

France ended the match with just three shots on goal. They still scored two. They did a little more than enough.

Edited by: James Thorogood

Frankfurt's French goal machine: Randal Kolo Muani