France’s preparations for defending their world title suffered several blows before a ball was kicked with the loss of four potential first-choice players to injury, and their preferred left-back, Lucas Hernández saw his World Cup curtailed after 13 minutes of their opening game. But Les Bleus have thrived in adversity. In that opening match, France fell behind against Australia after just nine minutes but powered back to run out comfortable 4-1 winners. Before the tournament, Denmark had been expected to pose the biggest threat to France in the Group Stage, and the Danes clawed their way back into the Matchday 2 contest before Kylian Mbappé added his second to secure a sixth straight World Cup win for France for the first time ever. With a place in the Round of 16 already assured, coach Didier Deschamps made nine changes for the meeting with Tunisia — ending a run of 69 consecutive international starts for Antoine Griezmann. The absentees were missed, with France losing 1-0.
The defending champions never looked in any real danger in a comfortable 3-1 win over Poland in the Round of 16. Oliver Giroud opened the scoring — becoming France’s all-time leading goalscorer in the process — as they cruised into the last eight. They rode their luck against England, with the Expected Goals statistic favouring the Three Lions by 2.68 to 1.41. But once again, the much-maligned, Giroud was on hand to take advantage of Griezmann’s excellent cross. Les Bleus had only 43% possession and registered just five shots on target to England’s eight. They had to survive a late Harry Kane penalty but held on to provide England with a sense of déjà vu. In Qatar, France have averaged 54.8% possession and recorded 30 shots on target, while conceding 17.
Morocco have joined the likes of Bulgaria in 1994, and South Korea and Turkey, in 2002, as surprise World Cup semi-finalists. They began their tournament by holding Croatia to a goalless draw, a result that looks even more creditable with the Croats franking the form by reaching a semi-final of their own. Morocco’s upset win over top seeds, Belgium was a sign of things to come with two second-half goals enough to account for the side ranked number two in the world. Needing only a draw against Canada to guarantee a place in the knockout phase for the second time in their history, the Atlas Lions led after just four minutes, and prevailed 2-1, to top Group F.
If their giant-killing exploits against Belgium were impressive, the way they have disposed of Iberian giants Spain and Portugal, in successive matches, has been an even greater achievement. Spain had 77% possession, but Morocco allowed them only one shot on target, and after 120 goalless minutes, goalkeeper Yassine Bounou was the hero. The Sevilla ‘keeper saved two spot-kicks, and star man Achraf Hakimi converted the winning penalty to set up a quarter-final date with Portugal. From the minute, Youssef En-Nesyri broke the deadlock, Morocco looked capable of repelling Portugal and, in doing so they created history, becoming the first African side to reach the final four of a World Cup. En route to the semi-final, Morocco have survived on an average of 31.8% possession — they haven’t had more than 41% of the ball in any game — and have recorded 13 shots on target while allowing only nine.
After a brief dalliance with three at the back, French coach, Didier Deschamps committed to a back four, opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation in four of France’s five games. Moroccan manager, Walid Regragui has been as steadfast in his retention of 4-3-3 as his team have been stoic in defence. That defensive unit looks set to have to do without centre-back Romain Saïss, who was stretchered off against Portugal, while reserve forward Walid Cheddira is suspended, following his red card.
Ranked 22nd according to FIFA, Morocco have only conceded one goal in eight matches under Regragui, and that was an unfortunate own goal when they were already 2-0 up against Canada. Fiorentina’s defensive midfielder, Sofyan Amrabat, has been outstanding in his role screening in front of their back four. Having beaten/eliminated teams ranked second, seventh, and ninth in the world, they now face fourth-ranked France. The north African side has only lost two of their past 45 matches. It will be the first meeting of these two nations since 2007, and Morocco is yet to beat France, with two draws and five losses in seven previous encounters. Five of the Moroccan squad earn their living in France, and they will be hoping to use their familiarity with their opponents in the same way that a Senegal team rudely dubbed “France B“ did in 2002 when knocking the reigning world champions out of the tournament. A Moroccan win would top that, and all the Atlas Lions’ fantastic accomplishments in this tournament. But France are firm favourites to move a step closer to becoming the first team to defend the trophy since Brazil, in 1962.