Morocco confirms World Cup icon status, but the Griezmann pig reigns as England play the third wheel
France have certainly had to work for their place in another World Cup final. Morocco was amazing once again, but a remarkable journey is over.
‘This is how you play against France,’ a thousand smug voices collectively screamed into the night. Come on them. Take the game to them. Don’t give them a minute to breathe. And of course, in the end still lose.
They have failed to reach four of the last seven World Cup finals and two EC 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 wonderfully.
Morocco was typically phenomenal. They made little mistakes that their remarkable journey was stopped at the penultimate obstacle. There has been more than an element of patronization in how their historic run has been covered in some places, but this was a last-in-a-lifetime performance under the kind of bright lights that they should be getting used to.
Azzedine Ounahi cannot remain uncovered in Angers for much longer; Sofiane Boufal should not be abandoned in Ligue Un’s bottom club either. Fiorentina will cross their fingers and hold on to Sofyan Amrabat for dear life. Graham Potter could have liked the look of Hakim Ziyech. Yahia Attiyat Allah has only played eight club games outside his home nation and there will be quite a few teams looking to change that.
But while these players showed even more to suggest they belong at this level on a more permanent basis, France have already operated there long enough not to be knocked off course. Not when they dropped first against Australia in the opener. Not when Denmark gave them a fight. Not when Tunisia forced a reassessment of squad depth. Not when Poland started brightly. Not when England had them on the ropes. Not here, then perhaps second best overall again.
France have a tendency to persevere and a belief that only comes with having crossed the finish line before. And it can be impossible to let go for good.
The second semi-final of the 2022 World Cup can be summed up by two moments at either end of the game, but the same part of the pitch, coincidentally both occur in the fourth minute – one in the first half and another deep into second-half stoppage time.
France took the kind of early lead that neutrals must have feared. The wintry breath of the last punter who frantically pointed out that Morocco had not conceded a single goal scored by an opponent in the tournament so far had barely settled in the air when Theo Hernandez finished smartly. Antoine Griezmann’s intelligent movement unzipped the defence, his cutback allowed two Kylian Mbappe shots to be blocked, and when the ball pushed to Hernandez, Achraf Dari broke in the air as he tried 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, dragged Hugo Lloris out and lifted the ball back towards Ounahi. His strike was headed into the path of fellow substitute Abderrazak Hamdallah, whose goal-bound drive was stopped a couple of yards from goal by Jules Konde, with Lloris beaten.
Call it the luck of the draw, flipping a coin or the fine margins that seem to favor France more often than not. But these two cases emphasized quite nicely the intangible difference between these sides.
What unfolded in the middle of these bookends was captivating and engaging. Olivier Giroud hit the post. Ounahi forced a fine save. Boufal was convicted 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-back that he is, whose error in going out led to the France goal, hit the woodwork with an overhead kick from a half-secured corner.
Even before the match, Nayef Aguerd pulled out of the warm-up and had to be replaced at the last minute by Dari, while an obviously unfit Romain Saiss was replaced in the 21st minute when Walid Regragui switched the formation back from 3-4. -3 he gambled with at the start.
France had its own problems. Youssouf Fofana replaced Adrien Rabiot and Ibrahima Konate deputized for Dayot Upamecano – with suggestion emerging England players had given the absent couple the flu.
That was not the only mention of the Three Lions of the evening. The BBC dedicated much of the break to a ridiculously belated England post-mortem, as if dissecting the actual World Cup semi-final that played out before they 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 shown how it was done, England were at most the third wheel in a tie brilliant enough not to warrant it.
Half-time of every World Cup match on the BBC: Let’s talk about England’s next game
Half-time of the semi-final on the BBC now England are out: Let’s catch up with the English team
— Ben Isaacs (@tweetsfromben) 14 December 2022
The break seemed to encourage Morocco. After a brilliant move down the right resulted in a Boufal cross being narrowly deflected, they got down to Attiyat-Allah’s left almost right for Youssef En-Nesyri, a matter of yards away.
For neither the first nor the last time, the impeccable Ibrahima Konate was on hand to clear.
But Morocco’s pressure built and the head of steam reached a crescendo that made a goal inevitable. The only uncertainty was which team: Regragui’s side attacked with confidence and skill but lacked the clinical touch; France faltered, but the danger of counterattack is constant and terrifying.
Griezmann almost slipped Mbappe in. Boufal worked his way to the touchline but saw his cut-back diverted by the Atletico Madrid player, who may stand alone as Lionel Messi’s rival for the Ballon d’Or. The gritty Griezmann dug in more than anyone, caught on the edge of his own area and made more clearances (3) than any player apart from Konate (4).
Mbappe played some sort of role in the opener but was otherwise peripheral, and in particular he was absolutely – and cleanly – lapped by Amrabat when he attacked thunderously down the left. It did Eric Dier vs Sergio Ramos look tame.
Didier Deschamps helped restore some balance with the introduction of Marcus Thuram for Giroud, the Gladbach forward helping to ease the pressure down France’s left. Mbappe is a sensational player, but his defensive coverage leaves everything to the imagination. Still, this switch allowed him to move centrally and ultimately decide the match.
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 dazzling with his footwork and sneaking in a shot that went into the grateful and unmarked path of Randal Kolo Muani. Morocco was beaten but not destroyed; they had six unanswered shots from the 86th minute onwards in search of a consolation that may not have represented the sum total of what they actually deserved.
France will scoff, much as a reigning champion should, at the idea that they deserved anything less than a place in consecutive World Cup finals. Morocco were incredible and fought like warriors, but fate seems to have decreed a Messi v Mbappe sports washing spectacular.