FFrance have perfected the art of pragmatism. They absorb pressure, defend themselves in numbers, lure in their prey, and then strike with the blink of an eye. Sometimes, as England found out, they only need a few dominant spells. Such is life when you have Kylian Mbappé waiting to run away on the counterattack, Antoine Griezmann finding small pockets of space and Olivier Giroud – still underrated, still going strong – waiting for an opportunity to drop into the box of repair.
A winning formula for Didier Deschamps, whose team are two wins away from becoming the first country since Brazil in 1962 to retain the world Cup. The France head coach is not worried about having more ball possession than the other team. Deschamps does not speak of having a philosophy. He thinks about the best way to win.
But Wednesday night, France face a conundrum: how to break through opponents who will give them the ball and trust the best defense in the tournament to hold their ground. Morocco, the first African team to reach the semi-finals, stands in its way and risks moving a little. The underdogs will be roared by thousands of supporters at Al Bayt Stadium, where a hostile atmosphere is set to test the mettle of the French players, and they are surely not going to open up now. Receiving neutrals is not Morocco’s priority. They played eight and a half hours of football, faced three penalties in their shootout win over Spain and the only goal they conceded was when Nayef Aguerd put the ball in his own net against Canada .
Patience, as French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris admitted, will be key. Part of the problem for the world champions is that Morocco, supremely coached by Walid Regragui, are effective. They will look to their brilliant right-back Achraf Hakimi to put aside his friendship with Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Mbappé. It will fall to the tireless Sofyan Amrabat to pin Griezmann, who was so impressive against England, and Bono to work more wonders in goal. They will pray that Aguerd, Romain Saïss and Noussair Mazraoui are fit to play in defense, and that they are not too tired afterwards. beat Portugal 1-0 in the quarter-finals.
But Morocco, who topped a group including Belgium and Croatia, will also be looking to lure France into a trap before pounce at the break. As Lloris pointed out, they have a solid midfield and creative threats from Hakim Ziyech and Sofiane Boufal. Youssef En-Nesyri, author of the winning goal against Portugal, is a dangerous runner in front. “They are not only good in defense,” warned Deschamps. “They wouldn’t have reached the semi-finals if they had only been a defensive team.”
It will be up to France to assert themselves, control possession and stretch the game, for Theo Hernandez and Jules Koundé to come up from the full-back positions. Griezmann, playing as a No.10 these days, will have to succeed where Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva failed. Mbappé will have to win his duel with Hakimi.
Still, an upheaval is not out of the question. Memories of France’s colonial past in Morocco will occasionally give a little extra in the stands. Regragui, who grew up in a suburb just outside of Paris, is ready. “We want Africa to be on top of the world,” he said. “We are not the favourites. You may say I’m crazy, but a little crazy is fine.
“We are not here to joke and we are not tired. We want to rewrite the history books for our brothers in North Africa, for the Egyptians, the Libyans, all those who dreamed of seeing an African team in the semi-finals. I don’t want to wait another 40 years to give another African team a chance. I’m a little crazy; a little dreamy.
Regragui was in a good mood. He wasn’t ready to hear accusations that his team’s style is boring. “This idea of possession, it’s amazing that you journalists like these 50-60% numbers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have a shot. Expected goals don’t mean anything.
“If they allow us possession, we’ll keep the ball, but I don’t think they’ll allow us to. We’re here to win. If you give points to the teams with the most possession, that would change the situation. gives. Guardiola was my hero for a long time, I wanted to play possession football. When you have De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, it’s possible.
“A lot of European journalists have criticized our style. They don’t like to see an African team playing smart. They think the African teams were fun but get knocked out. Those days are over now. There is no one way to win. We had a 0.01% chance of winning the World Cup at the start. We now have 0.03. But we will try to destroy the statistics.
Try to argue with that. For Morocco, it is a question of being effective. The dilemma, however, is that France has so little time for romance. When Deschamps was asked about numbers in football, he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. Sometimes, he says, you have to ignore the statistics and trust your eyes. Essentially, Deschamps was saying he didn’t care if people criticized his team’s refusal to play fantasy football. France will simply believe that it can find a way to win.