Anybody simply seeing the final result of a 2-0 victory for the French without actually witnessing the match, might be tempted to make the assumption that France had a straightforward win; but that would be incredibly harsh on the brave Moroccans, who pushed the current champions all the way.
They had a higher percentage of possession, but were just lacking a touch of quality and composure where it really matters, in the opposition’s penalty area. A goal in each half was enough for France who were far from at their best, but that has been a recurring theme almost all the way through the tournament; yet here they are, through to their second successive final, where they will attempt to overcome Argentina – and of course Lionel Messi – and become the first side since Brazil did it in 1958 and 1962, to win back to back World Cups.
Moroccan fans in party mood
In the build up to the game Morocco fans were out in force in the main Doha square, for what was the biggest game in the country’s history. “Seer, Seer Maghreb” (translated as go, go Morocco) and “Dima Maghreb” (forever Morocco) was chanted repeatedly, creating a fabulous atmosphere, which they transferred to the Al Bayt Stadium, where they outnumbered the French around ten to one.
Qataris block extra flights
There was a huge blow for several hundred other fans though, as they were devastatingly let down after Qatari officials blocked Morocco’s national airline, Royal Air Maroc, from running seven additional flights, for which the Moroccan FA had promised free tickets for those on board. No reason was given for the decision to deny clearance.
Major blow even before the start
Another blow was dealt to the North Africans in the warm up shortly before kick-off. Nayef Aguerd, who had performed so well throughout the competition was already a doubt, but had been originally named in the starting line-up. When the players took the field however, he had been replaced by Achraf Dari.
France take early lead
They say these things come in three’s and just four minutes in to the contest they fell behind, after some poor defending had allowed influential midfielder Antoine Griezmann to escape down the right. His cut back found star striker Kylian Mbappe, but although his shot was blocked, it deflected into the path of Theo Hernandez, who managed to squeeze his effort wide of the goalkeeper.
It was only the second goal Morocco had conceded in the whole tournament, and the first time they had been behind.
Sixty-four years since such a quick goal
Hernandez’s goal was timed at four minutes and 39 seconds, and was the fastest in a World Cup semi-final since Vava netted in the second minute of Brazil’s 5-2 win against France, way back in 1958.
Skipper forced off
The blows just kept on coming for the Moroccans when skipper Romain Saiss had to be withdrawn after less than thirty minutes. He had been taken off on a stretcher only four days earlier with a severe hamstring problem, so it was a brave effort to try and play, but was probably always going to be too much for him.
Spirited fight back by plucky North Africans
One nil down, with both central defenders off injured, the Moroccans would have been forgiven for thinking the football gods were against them, and thrown in the towel. That however, as has become blatantly obvious during this World Cup, was never going to happen, and to their enormous credit, they rallied and began to take the game to the French, who were struggling to assert their usual control.
No way through
Just before half-time a fantastic bicycle kick by Jawad El Yamiq, from almost the edge of the box, struck Hugo Llores’ right hand post. A goal there would have been deserved; but France survived.
For the first 20 minutes of the second half Morocco had 75 percent of the ball, but just couldn’t find a way through a tight defence, which was being superbly protected by a rejuvenated Griezmann, who has been transformed from a deadly striker into a star midfielder, by French coach Didier Deschamps.
Second for France seals it
As the game entered the final 15 minutes there was a major two minutes of play. Firstly, Abderrazak Hamdallah found himself in a great position in the penalty area, but instead of shooting he elected to try and take on another player, having already beaten two, and the chance was gone for the Moroccan. Then France made a substitution and within a minute Randal Kolo Muani’s had prodded the ball home from inside the six-yard box to put the French two up, and effectively seal the game.
His goal was timed at 44 seconds after coming on, making it the second quickest scored by a substitute in a World Cup knockout stage match, behind Denmark’s Ebbe Sande, who netted against Nigeria in 1998, after just 26 seconds of entering the field.
Epic clash lined up for the final
The champions played out the final few minutes without too much fuss to book their place at the “big table” on Sunday December 18, for a mouth-watering clash with Argentina, who had made it through 24 hours earlier, with a relatively comfortable 3-0 win over Croatia to set up the clash at the Lusail Stadium, for what will be their fifth visit to that particular venue; for France it will be their first time at the ground.
Chance to be recognised as greatest ever
Much will be made of the fact that it will be Messi vs Mbappe, especially as the little Argentine genius has confirmed that it will be his last World Cup game. He has never won the trophy, which to some pundits is what counts against him when debates are held over who is the greatest player ever, putting him behind fellow Argentinian Diego Maradona, and the legendary Brazilian Pele.
Happy to bow out in a World Cup final
Playing in his fifth World Cup, Messi said after his match-winning performance against the Croats that it would be “very gratifying” to finish his journey in World Cups by playing in a final. “There are a lot of years from this year to the next one; so I don’t think I will be able to do that. To finish this way is brilliant.”
Battle for the Golden Boot
This will be his big chance and his form is spot on… literally by the way he buried his penalty in the semi-final. Both he and Mbappe are level on five goals, so that is an added contest in the battle for the Golden Boot.
Griezmann could dictate
The key man however, could be neither of those two; it may come down to the performance of Griezmann, who if he can get hold of the game as he has in many of the matches to this point, the Argentine side could struggle to get the ball to their little maestro, to enable him to weave his magic.
That said, it just seems to have almost been written in the stars that this was going to be Messi’s World Cup, and it would be no surprise to see him finish as top scorer, player of the tournament, and lift the trophy.