Champions France see off Morocco to advance to World Cup final

Goals from Hernandez and Kolo Muani give Europeans the edge in hard-fought encounter

France 2 (Hernandez, 5, Kolo Muani 79) Morocco 0

Stars rarely if ever align. Now comes a World Cup final for the ages as France play Argentina in Lusail’s giant golden bathtub on Sunday with the Kylian Mbappé zenith criss-crossing Lionel Messi’s glorious fading of the light.

Pelé's last World Cup was 12 years before Diego Maradona entered the 1982 stage. The same time elapsed when Messi emerged from Maradona’s shadow in 2006, just as Zinedine Zidane walked from the arena.

On Tuesday in Lusail, Messi gifted the planet a public torturing of Joško Gvardiol, the tournament’s best defender until Ibrahima Konate snatched that title away, creating a goal for Julian Alvárez that made it Argentina three, Croatia nil.


Mbappé saw Messi’s assist and raised it for every penny the Argentine has in his bank account.

Next, the Qatar owned Paris Saint Germain club-mates go toe-to-toe, probably without touching each other, but soccer has its own Ali versus Foreman. The Greatest against a seemingly invincible rising force. Has football ever had it so good? Has sport? What a World Cup to bring, by hook or by crook, to the Middle East.

The only place to begin is Mbappé's sensational moment as the clock ticked 79 minutes and Morocco, the most deserving semi-finalists any World Cup has ever known, were hunting the French.

Achraf Hakimi’s men refused to go quietly, that is, until Mbappé tore out their hearts. Randal Muani merely signed this masterpiece at the back post.

It was breath-taking by Mbappé, a schoolyard feel to the killer move as the older French boys devoured younger Moroccans at this altitude for the first time.

Mbappé likes to share the ball, swapping possession with Marcus Thuram, before beating Morocco’s strongest performers Sofyan Amrabat and Hakimi as if they were the weakest, and doing Achraf Dari for good measure with a deflected pass tapped-in by Muani.

Al Bayt’s 68,294 near full house swooned.

The first French goal came early enough to flip this unique semi-final on its Moroccan head. Walid Regragui has as many alternative plans as he does Arabic dialects, so the North Africans’ manager refused to panic. In fact, the karate-legged goal by Theo Hernandez on five minutes encouraged them to turn every possession into a Berber raid in the desert.

The main problem facing Morocco was Aurélien Tchouaméni. Every time Hakim Ziyech failed to knit the play, others too, but mostly Ziyech, the Real Madrid midfielder knifed an already wounded Moroccan defence.

Romain Saïss, the Atlas Lions’ inspirational captain, was stretchered off against Portugal last Friday with a hamstring injury that looked certain to end his tournament. Regragui took an enormous risk starting him, which back fired, but when Nayef Aguerd, West Ham’s £30 million centre half, pulled up in the warm-up, what choice did he have?

Bayern Munich full back Noussair Mazraoui did not reappear for the second half either. Saïss lasted 20 minutes as Morocco came apart at the seams, having conceded only one goal in their previous five World Cup games.

France manager Didier Deschamps, remarkably, could afford to lose Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano, two Champions League players struck down by the Doha flu that invaded the English camp before the quarter-finals.

Jawad El Yamiq would almost make amends for the first goal, with a spectacular overhead kick hitting the post just before half-time, but the Real Valladolid man made a fatal mistake in the opening exchanges. Lunging and missing the ball to invite Antoine Griezmann to find Kylian Mbappé who was blocked initially by Hakimi before a second effort was batted by Bono into Hernandez’s long reach.

Unlike Croatia, Morocco deserved to be in the last four. They leave this night with justifiable anger as Canadian VAR chief Drew Fischer missed a stonewall penalty on 27 minutes when Hernandez lost control of the ball and lumped into Sofiane Boufal.

Azzedine Ounahi led the revival, letting fly from the edge of the box, curling around Raphael Varane and forcing a one-handed save from Hugo Lloris.

When Boufal turned and charged at the French, as he did when scoring the Premier League goal of the 2017/18 season for Southampton, anything seemed possible. Ziyech missed the target but Morocco’s 12th man had found their voice. Not even the mass cancellation of flights from the Maghreb region could soften the red capes’ yell.

Tchouaméni could though. His presence overshadowed Morocco’s Roy Keane impressionist, Amrabat.

But it was plain for everyone to see that Saïss needed to leave the pitch, and he did, when Oliver Giroud pushed past him and belted Bono’s righthand post, just as Boufal took a yellow card for smashing into Hernández, an act of revenge for the AC Milan wing-back’s foul on Ziyech.

Graeme Souness could almost be heard purring his catch phrase – “men, at it” – especially when Ibrahima Konaté and Varane, Liverpool and Manchester United centre halves, squeezed big Youssef En-Nesyri out of the game.

But Tchouaméni possessed all the elements required to own this semi-final, bursting out of a convoluted midfield and allowing Mbappé to destroy Achraf Dari for pace with the attack only stymied by Giroud hooking a shot inches beyond the post.

It could have been 4-0 or 2-2 at the turn, but for El Yamiq’s slide tackle on Griezmann saved Morocco. Same goes for Konate performing similar heroics, twice denying Ziyech and Hakimi down the other end.

Konaté was second only to Tchouaméni in terms of excellence, denying Boufal another golden chance, but France struggled to put Morocco away, until Mbappé mesmerised and delivered.

France: Lloris, Koundé, Varane, Konaté, Theo Hernandez, Tchouaméni, Fofana, Dembélé (Muani 79), Griezmann, Mbappe, Giroud (Thuram 65).

Morocco: Bounou, Hakimi, Dari, Saiss (Amallah 21), El Yamiq, Mazraoui (Attiyat Allah 46), Ziyech, Ounahi, Amrabat, Boufal (Aboukhlal 67), En-Nesyri (Hamdallah 66), Amallah (Ezzalzouli 78).

Referee: Cesar Arturo Ramos Palazuelos (Mexico).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent