How did they do that?
Team news: Saiss, Aguerd, Mazraoui all start
Great news for Morocco: the captain Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd and Noussair Mazraoui are all fit to start in defence. Well, they start.
Aguerd and Mazraoui replace Yahia Attiyat Allah and Selim Amallah in the only changes from the win over Portugal. That probably means a switch to a back five.
France also make two changes, though theirs are enforced. Youssouf Fofana and Ibrahim Konate replace Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano, who are unwell. I say ‘unwell’; Apparently they’ve caught the flu because of all the air conditioning. Upamecano is well enough to be on the bench.
France (4-2-3-1ish) Lloris; Kounde, Varane, Konate, T Hernandez; Tchouameni, Fofana; Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe; Giroud.
Substitutes: Pavard, Disasi, Guendouzi, Kolo Muani, Veretout, Mandanda, Saliba, Upamecano, Coman, Areola, Camavinga, Thuram.
Morocco (5-2-3) Bono; Hakimi, El Yamiq, Aguerd, Saiss, Mazraoui; Amrabat, Ounahi; Ziyech, El-Nesyri, Boufal.
Substitutes: Hamdallah, Zaroury, Sabiri, Mohamedi, Chair, Aboukhlal, Amallah, Ezzalzouli, Dari, Tagnaouti, El Khannouss, Benoun, Allah, Jabrane.
Referee Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos (Mexico)
“Yes – everything about Morocco being in the semifinals is good. An African nation,” says Charles Antaki. An Arab nation. A Muslim nation. Sticking two fingers up to colonial powers along the way; resolution; togetherness; and, not least, hugging your mother at the end of the game. Or nearly everything: for the neutral, the actual football they play is pretty dismal, or at least let’s say unappealing. It’s not as mind-numbingly ghastly as I recall Greece was back in 2004, but continuous massed defense, plus the occasional recce forward, is not a great watch. But good luck to them, of course.”
I know what you mean, although I would say that – as with Denmark when they won Euro 92 – some of their counter-attacks have been utterly exhilarating.
Jacob Steinberg’s big-match preview
And now for something completely different: a World Cup semi-final involving an African team. And an Arab team. Even in a football world full of hot air and hotter takes, it’s very hard to overhype this game: France v Morocco, for a place in the World Cup final. Morocco has already made history, but imagine if they get to the final. Imagine if they win the bugger.
First, a warning: tonight could be a thundering anti-climax. The semi-final is usually where World Cup fairytales end. There have been shock winners of the Africa Cup of Nations, Copa America and European Championship – but never the World Cup, and there haven’t been many unlikely finalists either. The altitude of the semi-finals is usually too great for underdogs. But then the altitude of the quarter-finals was supposed to be too great for African teams.
Morocco – or should that be Morocky – have defied logic, fatigue, injuries and a very harsh draw (they won their group, remember) to reach this stage. They’ve already eliminated the teams ranked 2nd, 7th and 9th in the world; now they just have to take care of 3rd and 4th to complete – no offense, Brian – the greatest achievement in football history.
Like Argentina, they have been inspired by extraordinary support, and that should be a factor again tonight. The subconscious says France will win regardless, but that’s based more on history than the evidence of this tournament. When Greece won Euro 2004, many people confused defensive excellence with luck; we shouldn’t make the same mistake with Morocco.
Morocco’s record this decade looks like that of a Pep Guardiola team: P41 W31 D8 L2 F86 A24. Yes, some of the opposition was relatively weak, but they are a team that is used to success. They have two main concerns tonight, and I’m not talking about Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann. The first is how many of their players have run themselves into the ground against Spain and Portugal; the second is how they will react if they go behind.
That hasn’t happened in the eight games since the remarkable Walid Regragui took over in August, and Morocco is built – both tactically and psychologically – to protect rather than search. But it’s dangerous to make assumptions about their limitations, especially given their extraordinary team spirit. On the evidence of this World Cup, Regragui’s players would crawl to the ends of the earth for him, never mind walk.
I haven’t really spoken about France in this preamble. The main reason is that Morocco is the big story, but it’s also hard to know what to say about a team whose excellence has become so familiar in the last few years. While it hasn’t been plain sailing in Qatar – they still haven’t kept a clean sheet, and it’s easy to forget that they are without at least four of their best XI – they have had the aura of winners from day one.
France are two games away from becoming the first team in 60 years to retain the World Cup, which would mean instant all-time greatness. Three players at different stages of their careers – Mbappe, Griezmann and Olivier Giroud – are strong contenders to win the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball or both.
While this is the biggest game in Morocco’s history, for France it’s just another semi-final – their third since 2016, fourth if you count the Nations League. They won all the others.
Tonight’s winners will play Lionel Messi’s team in the final on Sunday. There are two ways this can go: an expected victory for France, or an earthshattering win for Morocco.
kick off 7pm GMT, 10pm in Al Khor, 8pm in Paris and Rabat.