In the end, it was a triumph of French know-how, of their ability to handle this type of occasion, to get the job done – even below their best level. Théo Hernandez scored early and Didier Deschamps was able to think back to a great defensive performance, especially from Ibrahima Konaté, who would give a first clean sheet of this match. world Cup for his team.
When Kylian Mbappé came to life in the box late, showing his glittering toes and seeing a deflected low shot, there was substitute Randal Kolo Muani to tap home. Antoine Griezmann was once again excellent in midfield, a case study in composure amid the tumult, all in easy balance and technique, his appreciation of everything around him a joy, and France stay the course to defend his title. The final against Argentina on Sunday promises to be a classic.
And yet the sweeping brushstrokes failed to understand how Morocco made France sweat, how they played with bulging chests and not a hint of inferiority complex. The African side – the first from the continent to reach a World Cup semi-final – had long since put that behind them in their epic run against Belgium in the group stage, Spain and Portugal in the round of 16. .
Walid Regragui’s Atlas Lions scoffed at Europe’s pretentious claims that they were too defensive by pushing forward, breaking lines and creating chances. It was an opportunity to delight the fans who had turned this stadium into a sea of red, and the millions who stayed home. When Regragui’s players collapsed on the grass at the end, they did so having left everything there.
The 200-1 shots at the start of the tournament had only won two previous games at this level. They had created miracles; Leicester City on adrenaline overload or, as Regragui put it, Rocky Balboa. It would be a step too far though, as France celebrated, there was a moment of heartache – a prolonged and moving ovation for Morocco from all sides of the arena.
It was a night of pulsing atmosphere, sense of history and, yes, possibility hard to ignore. It was an additional return on the passion and the massive investment in the Moroccan game of King Mohammed VI and the national federation. Everyone who traveled was determined to experience it fully.
What Morocco did not take into account was the concession of the first goal.
Regragui had settled into a back five for the first time and he was breached when Raphaël Varane played a nice pass inside on the right for Griezmann, which Jawad El Yamiq tried to intercept. He failed.
Griezmann crossed low and Mbappé blocked two efforts. After the second the ball sat at the far post for Hernandez and his side finish was a beauty. It was only the second goal Morocco had conceded here – after the monstrous goal against Canada – and the first time they had fallen behind.
Regragui had lost Nayef Aguerd before kick-off, having initially named him in the starting XI, and a second centre-half, Romain Saïss, who had been a doubt in selection, did not last beyond the 21st minute. He limped moments after misjudging a high ball and letting Olivier Giroud in.
Giroud whipped the outside of the post. Noussair Mazraoui, also injured, will not reappear in the second half.
One could wonder if the physical effort had caught up with Morocco and yet they put even more energy into the game. Regragui rearranged into a 4-1-4-1 without Saïss but, in both systems, Morocco held a high line and pushed forward. France were happy to sit back, chase turnovers and make the transition quickly.
Morocco carried the physical fight, they monopolized 61% of ball possession and they announced the equalizer. Especially when El Yamiq headed in a header in first-half stoppage time after Giroud had half cleared a corner, sending the ball to the bottom left corner. Hugo Lloris crossed to tip him over the post.
Earlier, the goalkeeper had jumped the other way to fend off an Azzedine Ounahi curler as Morocco wanted a penalty when Hernandez hit his shins with Sofiane Boufal.
France should have led 2-0 in 36 minutes. Aurélien Tchouaméni found Mbappé who couldn’t finish, El Yamiq cleared, but only to Tchouaméni, who returned a quick pass for Giroud, who was unmarked from the penalty spot. He sent a shot past the post for the first time – a bad miss.
Morocco was not lacking in adventure, in particular Achraf Hakimi, who was in full marauding on the right, chaining wisely with Hakim Ziyech. Sofyan Amrabat excelled in front of the defence.
Morocco continued to force the exit at a surprising pace after half-time, with some of their exchanges in the final third being fun to watch. The substitute, Yahya Attiat-Allah, could not follow up on a well-placed shot opportunity. He also passed behind Jules Koundé, his center pierced by Konaté, when he almost spotted replacement Zakaria Aboukhlal.
French substitute Marcus Thuram missed a free header and then came the opener when Morocco felt their hearts racing, another substitute, Abderrazak Hamdallah, waltzing past Tchouaméni’s dispossession. Hamdallah could not work the space he wanted and he escaped.
Mbappé’s turn to kill the dream. It was Kolo Muani who led the move following a loose pass from Morocco but Mbappé triggered it, his quick feet a little blurry, the shot grazing substitute Abdessamad Ezzalzouli, only to break nicely.
When Hamdallah had Koundé clear the line, Morocco was denied the consolation they deserved.