France favorite but Morocco eyes another knockout punch
DOHA: After putting Belgium, Portugal and Spain to the sword in Qatar, Morocco is looking to bring another soccer superpower to their knees when they face France in the World Cup semi-finals on Wednesday in a match heavy with political and social overtones.
Morocco, the first African side to reach the last four at a World Cup, will command ear-splitting support at the Al Bayt Stadium, and they will need every bit of it to beat the defending champions and continue their fairytale run.
The match against former colonial power France will take on an added edge. Morocco’s exploits in Qatar have provided an outlet for marginalized migrant communities in France, who have been out on the streets celebrating their wins.
Also read: List of FIFA World Cup winners since 1930
The North Africans have ridden the wave of support throughout the tournament, crowds exhorting players to keep going as they emptied the tanks in every game.
After finishing top of a group that also included Croatia, Belgium and Canada, Morocco then knocked off the fancied Spaniards and Portuguese to reach the semis.
But whether they have enough to engineer an even bigger upset remains to be seen.
By their own admission, there is a vast chasm in quality between the two sides.
Morocco’s defense has been virtually watertight, conceding only once – an own goal against Canada – in their five matches so far.
“We are now becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup because we are showing that even if you don’t have as much talent and money then you can succeed,” said coach Walid Regragui.
“We have made our people and our continent so happy and proud. When you watch Rocky, you want to support Rocky Balboa and I think we are the Rocky of this World Cup. I think now the world is with Morocco.”
On the fitness front, they are likely to again be without key defender Nayef Aguerd (hamstring) and will be sweating on the status of skipper Romain Saiss, the other first-choice centre back.
Morocco’s defence is set for its toughest test, up against the tournament’s leading scorer Kylian Mbappe (five goals) and Olivier Giroud (four) plus Antoine Griezmann, who was in sublime form in their quarter-final win over England.
An intriguing battle is also looming between Paris St Germain teammates Mbappe and close friend Achraf Hakimi. England kept Mbappe relatively quiet but often had to double-up on him down the left.
Morocco’s ability to use their right flank for counter-attacks, through a combination of Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech, will be limited if they are kept busy trying to stop Mbappe.
“It always comes down to a few details at this level,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “Quality is not enough, but in this squad there is also mental strength, and a little experience.”
As Deschamps recognised, fitness, technique and tactics will, as always, be only part of the story. Morocco will have to go very deep to avoid “settling”. Having broken new ground for Africa and themselves they know they are already guaranteed a hero’s welcome when they return home, regardless of the outcome on Wednesday.
France, in contrast, will consider it something of a disaster if they fail to deliver the expected victory that will keep them on course to become the first country to successfully defend the World Cup since Brazil 60 years ago.