France do just enough to go forward – but will they have more for the final? | World Cup 2022

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All it took was one little slip. After five minutes Raphaël Varane moved out of defence, scanning for options, and rolled the ball down the inside-right channel, luring Jawad El Yamiq forward, pulling the Morocco defender out of position and kidding him into thinking that he could snuff the danger out.

There was a problem. Clarity arrived quickly, a realisation that something bad was about to happen, a sense of dread falling over Morocco as it became apparent that El Yamiq had made the error of gambling and losing track of Antoine Griezmann.

It was not ideal. Suddenly, before they had settled into their first World Cup semi-final, Morocco were in the Griezmann zone, scrambling to cover as the France No 7 turned and found Kylian Mbappé, Achraf Hakimi made a block and the ball looped to the left for Théo Hernandez to fire the opening goal past Yassine “Bono” Bounou.

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Ah. In a stadium packed out with their supporters, Morocco found themselves in unfamiliar territory: picking the ball out of their own net, behind for the first time in this World Cup. For France, it seemed the perfect scenario; an opportunity to lure desperate opponents in and then run riot with the pace of Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé on the break.

Only, the longer the game progressed, the harder it became to work out how France keep getting away with what, to the naked eye, looks like the bare minimum. Within minutes of going behind Morocco were hitting back, Azzeddine Ounahi nipping in behind the inexperienced French midfield and drawing a fine save from Hugo Lloris. Moments later Olivier Giroud was giving the ball away in midfield, then spraying an easy pass out for a throw. Over on the right, Dembélé simply looked lost and forlorn.

And at times it was even tempting to ask a ridiculous question: are France, defending world champions, slight favourites going into Sunday’s final with Lionel Messi’s Argentina, actually any good? Is someone going to work them out? Is Lionel Scaloni going to expose Didier Deschamps as a pragmatic fraud?

There is certainly encouragement for Argentina to take from how Morocco attacked France. Walid Regragui’s side were fearless, fierce and rather brilliant. Before the game much had been made of whether Hakimi could win his duel with Mbappé, his friend and Paris Saint‑Germain teammate. In Regragui’s view, though, there is little point in building a bespoke anti-Mbappé plan. There was no special attention paid to France’s star man, no tripling up on him (at times there was barely any doubling up), and after a while it became clear that Hakimi was determined to show why he is regarded as one of the best attacking right-backs in the world.

Working in tandem down the right flank with Hakim Ziyech, such a wonderful gliding presence, it was as if Hakimi had observed how conservatively England’s Kyle Walker had played against Mbappé last Saturday and decided there was no point staying in his own half. Better to go for it. Better to charge forward, better to find the spaces behind Hernandez, better to make France worry about him.

France players and coaching staff congratulate themselves after the final whistle.
France players and coaching staff congratulate themselves after the final whistle. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

Of course, it meant taking risks. Midway through the first half Morocco left themselves exposed, Mbappé tearing into space vacated by Hakimi, Giroud shanking wide.

Mostly, though, the underdogs had France worried. There were surges from Hakimi, dribbles from Sofiane Boufal, Youssef En-Nesyri almost running beyond Ibrahima Konaté. With Adrien Rabiot unwell, the youthful midfield partnership of Aurélien Tchouameni and Youssouf Fofana looked raw in the company of Sofyan Amrabat, who could be seen racing back at one stage to produce a thunderous challenge just as Mbappé looked ready to hit turbo speed.

Much like England, though, Morocco could not land any telling blows. El Yamiq hit a post with an overhead kick. In the second half, with France looking increasingly frazzled, crosses flashed across the box without anyone applying the final touch. There was also the moment Tchouameni dawdled in a dangerous position and lost possession to Abderrazak Hamdallah, who was unable to get his shot away.

At that point it was tempting to dwell on Morocco’s lack of killer instinct. Or perhaps France had better players, more class, far more experience of competing at this level. They had Griezmann dropping back on the cover, Lloris’s handling relieving pressure and Varane, so cool in central defence, helping Konaté out of some tight spots.

It never quite felt that France would crack. There was no panic. They survived the sticky spells, held their shape and kept Morocco at bay, and they pulled clear with a goal that owed more to good fortune than skill, Randal Kolo Muani tapping in after Mbappé’s deflected shot ran into the substitute’s path.

It was another flash of French ruthlessness. They are an odd side, content to play in bursts, happy to do just about enough and leave you wanting more.

On the other hand, barring another Messi masterclass, they are about to become the first country since Brazil in 1962 to defend the World Cup. Are France any good? Does Deschamps know what he’s doing? The eyes sometimes say no; the results say otherwise.

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