African trailblazers Morocco will endeavour to continue their magical World Cup 2022 journey when they face a monumental test of their mettle against current holders France in Wednesday’s semi-final at the Al Bayt Stadium.
The Atlas Lions stunned Portugal 1-0 to reach the final four, while Les Bleus sent a dogged England side home via a 2-1 scoreline to keep their hopes of back-to-back titles alive, and either Argentina or Croatia will await the victors in the showpiece event.
A missed Harry Kane penalty is a collector’s item in football, and France were the “lucky” recipients – according to Didier Deschamps – of such good fortune, as the reigning champions prevented England from bringing football home in a memorable quarter-final.
Aurelien Tchouameni’s thunderbolt and Olivier Giroud’s header either side of an accurate Kane penalty got the job done for France, although Bleus supporters were relieved and stunned in equal measure when the England captain blazed a second spot kick over the top.
France also had to survive a late Marcus Rashford free kick which nestled onto the roof of the net, and referee Wilton Sampaio found himself at the centre of controversy too, but a place in the semi-final was wholly deserved for a Bleus side whose aspirations of back-to-back titles are still alive.
Les Bleus failed to win any of their first three World Cup semi-finals, but they have since prevailed on their last three occasions in 1998, 2006 and 2018, and it has been 84 years since a European nation managed to reach the World Cup final as reigning champions – the Italian luminaries of 1934 and 1938 were the most recent to do so.
By conceding to Kane from the spot, France ensured that they would still be without a World Cup 2022 clean sheet ahead of their semi-final with Morocco, who by contrast certainly know a thing or two about keeping opposing players at bay, even with defensive alterations being forced upon them.
No matter what transpires at the Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday, the current Morocco crop have already cemented their place in national and continental folklore as the first-ever African nation to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Being forced to cope without Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui while meeting a Portugal side who hit Switzerland for six was not what the doctor ordered for Walid Regragui, but his stand-ins performed admirably to keep A Selecao at bay, and a Youssef En-Nesyri header was all it took for the Atlas Lions to make African history.
Having taken maximum spoils against three international behemoths in Belgium, Spain and Portugal, Morocco would be worthy finalists indeed, and the Atlas Lions enter the semi-final having remarkably prevented opposing players from scoring in the entire tournament so far.
Aguerd’s own goal against Canada represents the only time that Yassine Bounou has been beaten in Qatar – Regragui’s side otherwise have four clean sheets to their name – and the Morocco faithful ought to enjoy this statistic, as the last two teams to keep five clean sheets in a single World Cup were Italy in 2006 and Spain in 2010, both of whom went on to become champions.
Profligacy has been of major benefit to Morocco too, as only nine of the 45 shots they have faced at the World Cup have been on target, but facing a France side who have never suffered defeat to the Atlas Lions in five matches should not intimidate Regragui’s players or their vociferous fanbase.
France enter the final four with fresh concerns over the pair of Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot, both of whom have presented cold-like symptoms and missed training on Tuesday, so the duo are classed as doubts for the contest. Ibrahima Konate and Youssouf Fofana will deputise if needed.
Should Deschamps have everyone available, the Bleus XI picks itself, with Jules Kounde firmly ousting Benjamin Pavard in the right-back position and Theo Hernandez doing a competent job in the absence of his stricken brother Lucas Hernandez, who suffered a torn ACL in their opening match with Australia.
France’s all-time leading male goalscorer Giroud could become the oldest player in history to score five goals in a single World Cup should he make the net ripple here, and while Kylian Mbappe was kept relatively quiet by England, Les Bleus have now won all 10 World Cup games in which the 23-year-old has started.
Meanwhile, Morocco striker Walid Cheddira received two yellow cards in quick succession against Portugal and will be suspended for the semi-final, but the 24-year-old was never expected to push for a starting berth.
West Ham United’s Aguerd missed the quarter-final win over Portugal after sustaining an adductor injury against France in the last 16, but Regragui will pull out all the stops to have him available after Romain Saiss had to be stretchered off on Saturday due to an ongoing hamstring issue.
Saiss has affirmed that he will do everything in his power to be fit for the semi-final, where Mazraoui could also force his way back into the fray from a hip flexor problem, and Hakim Ziyech will expect to be fine despite also being forced off over the weekend.
However, Regragui can rest easy after witnessing the determined performances of Yahia Attiyat Allah and Jawad El Yamiq against Portugal, and at least one of the duo should be required in some capacity here.
France possible starting lineup:
Lloris; Kounde, Varane, Upamecano, T. Hernandez; Tchouameni, Rabiot; Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe; Giroud
Morocco possible starting lineup:
Bono; Hakimi, El Yamiq, Aguerd, Mazraoui; Ounahi, Amrabat, Amallah; Ziyech, En-Nesyri, Boufal