Two of the most impressive sides in the competition faced off for a spot in the World Cup final. The reigning champion France versus the dark horse Morocco – the storyline promised high-quality football.
France broke the Champion curse that lasted 20 years. The balance of the squad, highlighted by the brilliance of Kylian Mbappe, lifted France through every adversity, even with multiple absences of key players. But the injury bug continued to haunt the Frenchmen when their standout center-back Dayot Upamecano was questionable for the game due to a throat infection. But considering the depth of France’s defense, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Meanwhile, Morocco came off a legendary victory against Portugal to become the first African nation to play in the semifinals. En route to this unprecedented feat, they lost a crucial center-back in Nayef Aguerd, who ironically was the only player to “score” against Morocco the entire tournament. Captain Romain Saiss and Noussair Mazraoui were among the players who weren’t fully healthy but still playable.
Coach Walid Regragui made a significant change to the starting lineup, converting from a regular 4-3-3 to a 5-4-1 against one of the best offenses. A reasonable decision! However, they still left Sofyan Amrabat to solo in the defensive midfield, which forced the defensive line to push higher to cover for him. This was a critical tactical note because a great ball through or up-top the defense can send attacking players into scoring position. And France did precisely this to open the scoreline. A brilliant through-ball put Griezmann in place to set up Mbappe for the shot. His shot was deflected but found a wide-open Theo Hernandez, who made zero mistakes. French being one-up in the fifth minute, adding that captain Romain Saiss couldn’t continue, forced Regragui to quickly revert to the regular formation.
Didier Deschamps directed the players to play slowlier, waiting for counter-attacking chances using Mbappe’s speed. Plenty more spaces were left for Ounahi or Boufal to utilize, but either Hugo Lloris’s showstopping saves or Jules Kounde’s goal-line clearance denied Morocco a goal. Many of the opportunities for the Atlas Lions were diffused by French “defensive midfielder” Antoine Griezmann. With his untiring workload, he thrived in the role of a number 8 and consistently supported the defense with some crucial clearances and tackles.
Struggling to find a way to the goal, Morocco had to pay the brutal price. A counter-attack saw Kylian Mbappe’s feet. A quick shot from Mbappe was blocked but unfortunately bounced to Kolo Muani in the far post to score on his first touch of the game. An unwanted turn of events for the Moroccans made them unable to get back into the game. Match ended 2-0, meaning France will go back to the World Cup final, where they will face Lionel Messi’s Argentina side.
Thank you, Morocco!
This World Cup was full of surprises, but this gritty and hard-fought Morocco team was the biggest one. Walid Regragui took over this team not long before the World Cup – the team was in trouble at the time. Star player Hakim Ziyech was at war with the former coaching staff of Valid Halilhodzic. Regragui came and changed the culture of the dressing room. Star players united and played like a team.
The generation deemed Moroccan second golden generation made history not only for themselves but also for Africa. And it was just the beginning. Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi, and Youssef En-Nesyri would all be in their prime by the time the next World Cup arrives. The future is promised, but now, let’s focus on winning the bronze medal of this World Cup.
Once again, thank you, Morocco, for bringing the much-needed heat to this humid Qatar weather!
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