WITH A 2-0 WIN, FRANCE ENDS MOROCCO'S DREAM OF REACHING THE WORLD CUP FINALS
In its match with France, Morocco gave everything it had. To continue one of the most exciting World Cup runs ever, it needed to find that little bit more. With their lionhearted performance during the Atlas Lions' 2-0 semifinal loss to France on Wednesday, the Atlas Lions certainly lived up to their nickname. There was no reason for them to put so much pressure on the reigning champion as they did. It is believed that athletic tape, adrenaline, and painkillers were holding Morocco together. It was disappointing to see Nayef Aguerd, named in the starting lineup, fail to make it through the warmup due to a nagging injury. Despite limping and wearing heavy bandaging around his leg, Romain Saiss only lasted 20 minutes before he was forced off, facilitating a formation change for Walid Regragui's team. Selim Amallah, his replacement, was substituted in the second half because of lingering fitness issues. At the halfway point, Noussair Mazraoui was taken off the field after missing the quarterfinal win over Portugal. Through sheer force of will, Azzedine Ounahi played on for as long as he could despite being clearly injured.
In spite of all of this, Morocco was still able to push France to the limit. As if by magic, Sofyan Amrabat kept hounding the French players. His sheer determination was evident when he raced across half the pitch, head up and legs pumping, to chase down Kylian Mbappe and win the ball with a full-blooded slide tackle that elicited the partisan crowd's roars. Among those present were Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech, along with Sofiane Boufal and Hakim Ziyech. However, it was not sufficient. It was lacking the extra touch of quality up front needed to overcome a team like France when it mattered the most. It was a very good performance by Morocco, but they stalled inside the penalty area, either failing to get a shot off or failing to get the necessary bounce to put the ball over the goal line. Unlike France, Morocco was unable to replicate Theo Hernandez's acrobatic goal and Mbappe's moment of inspiration.
Morocco has authored history for an entire continent, garnered new fans for previously unheralded players, and left an indelible mark on the World Cup despite its loss to Croatia in the third-place match. In recent weeks, Hernandez has certainly experienced a conflicting web of emotions after seeing his brother suffer a serious knee injury that has prevented him from starting at his first World Cup. Since Lucas, Theo's older brother ruptured his ACL during France's first match against Australia, he has been an integral part of Didier Deschamps' team. As several pillars of Les Bleus' squad were injured in Qatar, the team's title defense could have been compromised. This could actually be beneficial to France, making the team more balanced as a result of Deschamps' new lineup.
One of the most glaring examples is Hernandez. A crucial element of France's attack is his ferocious runs forward from left-back, particularly considering Jules Kounde, a central defender by trade, plays right-back and provides almost no offensive threat. Mbappe can also cut inside at will due to Theo's desire to surge forward, allowing him to link up with his teammates without sacrificing width. While Lucas has a lot of qualities, he's more defensive-minded than his brothers, making him a poor fit for France's current scheme. As opposed to his brother, he would almost certainly not have been loitering inside the penalty area when France's goal was scored. However, Morocco dominated their respective matches by controlling possession in the semi-finals. France has nevertheless retained its game-breaking ability despite the numerous injuries.
It was the second consecutive match in which Mbappe was largely restrained. Morocco managed to control one of the world's most explosive players admirably. With a handful of Moroccan defenders surrounding him, Mbappe created his own opportunity by moving out of the sea of red shirts with some rapid footwork before firing a deflected effort into Randal Kolo Muani's path. Just 44 seconds after being introduced as a substitute, the striker achieved the 2-0 victory for France. It served as a reminder that there is no way to completely negate Mbappe's influence. In the absence of Dayot Upamecano's illness, Ibrahima Konate would have sat on the bench during Wednesday's semifinal. In light of the following observations, his inclusion in the starting lineup played an important role in France's victory. At Al Bayt Stadium, Konate made five clearances, including two spectacular ones in quick succession as Morocco looked on the verge of an equalizer. With Sunday's final around the corner, Deschamps has to make a big decision.
There was much confusion when referee Cesar Ramos called a foul on Boufal for a collision with Hernandez in the first half, and showed the dynamic winger a yellow card as well. Ramos' decision was criticized by Moroccan fans and many neutrals who asked for a penalty, suggesting that the decision was reversed. The lead VAR for the match, Drew Fischer, disagreed. It is unlikely that the referees in the booth truly understood the reasoning behind Hernandez's touch on the ball, but they likely perceived him as being in possession with Boufal running into him rather than the other way around. It would have been a stonewall spot-kick had Boufal been dribbling into the area at the time of contact.
Saiss, his left leg heavily strapped, could barely walk by the time he succumbed to the inevitable and asked to be substituted after just 21 minutes. Olivier Giroud of all people had beaten the influential 32-year-old in a foot race not long ago. The sign was there. It was obvious he wasn't fit. Regragui switched from his effective 4-3-3 formation to a 3-4-3 system to begin the game. Morocco was already down 1-0 by the time Saiss left and Regragui reverted to type. How would things have changed if he had done things differently? No one knows. There is the possibility that the final against Argentina will follow a similar pattern.
By Rashmi Goel