France do just enough to go forward – but will they have more for the final? | Jacob Steinberg

Deschamps’ side came up with the bare minimum against Morocco, yet Argentina will worry about their ruthlessness

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.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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, Azzedine 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 on 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 Tchouaméni 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 Tchouaméni 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 successfully defend the World Cup. Are France any good? Does Deschamps know what he’s doing? The eyes sometimes say no; the results say otherwise.


Jacob Steinberg at Al Bayt Stadium

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
France 2-0 Morocco: World Cup semi-final player ratings
Ibrahima Konaté excelled for France, while Morocco’s captain, Romain Saïss, was unfit, well off the pace and soon withdrawn

Nick Ames at Al Bayt Stadium

14, Dec, 2022 @10:46 PM

Article image
France bring Morocco’s adventure to an end and reach World Cup final
France will play Argentina in Sunday’s World Cup final after ending Morocco’s fairytale run with a 2-0 win in the semi-final

David Hytner at Al Bayt Stadium

14, Dec, 2022 @9:14 PM

Article image
France have mastered art of winning but tireless Morocco will set new traps
‘We want to rewrite the history books,’ insists Walid Regragui as the African side aim to upset the wily World Cup favourites

Jacob Steinberg in Doha

13, Dec, 2022 @4:03 PM

Article image
‘The whole world is proud’: France game a step too far for Morocco, says Regragui
Morocco’s head coach, Walid Regragui, admitted the World Cup semi-final was a game too far for his side physically, after their 2-0 defeat by France

Sid Lowe at Al Bayt Stadium

14, Dec, 2022 @11:50 PM

Article image
Antoine Griezmann’s devilment gives France the edge when it matters | Barney Ronay
The beating heart of Les Bleus is playing his role in midfield in a way that no one else does, always on the half-turn

Barney Ronay at Al Bayt Stadium

14, Dec, 2022 @10:29 PM

Article image
Traditional No 9 Olivier Giroud continues to thrive beneath the radar for France | Anita Asante
Centre-forward whose goal knocked England out of the World Cup is often overlooked while all eyes are on Kylian Mbappé

Anita Asante

13, Dec, 2022 @7:30 AM

Article image
Varane driving France’s ‘historical soldiers’ in pursuit of World Cup
Raphaël Varane has drawn on his experience with assurance and leadership during France’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in Qatar

David Hytner in Doha

12, Dec, 2022 @8:25 PM

Article image
World Cup draw: group-by-group analysis for Qatar 2022
The draw threw up political intrigue, a heavyweight European clash and one group that is particularly hard to call

Jonathan Wilson

01, Apr, 2022 @7:24 PM

Article image
Brazil stay top of world rankings with Argentina second and Morocco 11th
Argentina have failed to dislodge Brazil from the top of Fifa’s rankings, while Morocco replace Senegal as Africa’s highest-ranked side

PA Media and Guardian sport

22, Dec, 2022 @10:52 AM

Article image
From Martínez to Mbappé: a World Cup 2022 team of the tournament | Jacob Steinberg
We select an XI, in a 4-3-3, that includes three players from surprise semi-finalists Morocco and one from England

Jacob Steinberg in Doha

19, Dec, 2022 @12:39 PM