NO MOR THE loss to France prevented England from taking their free pass into the final, or so many believed.
But here was the proof that even had Gareth Southgate’s team got their just rewards on Saturday night, there are no guarantees they would have sauntered into the final at the expense of this wonderful Morocco team.
France are one win away from defending their World Cup title after a semi-final win over Morocco
France won 2-0 on the night to set up a final showdown against Argentina
It proved to be one game too many for brave Morocco
Because back here at the Al Bayt Stadium, France were tested to the absolute max by the the Atlas Lions, the story of the tournament.
Against a partisan Moroccan crowd, France squeezed through but not without a whole lot of suffering and pain. Remarkably, the Africans had over 60 per cent possession.
But now, Les Bleus can defend their title against Argentina. So, it is Mbappe v Messi.
The two players signed to bring the European title to PSG which has not gone very well.
But on Saturday, one of them will on be top of the world. And what a final it will be.
Equally, this semi-final, despite the final scoreline, was absolutely fascinating.
England might think about what might have been had Harry Kane not missed a penalty. Morocco will think the same had they not lost two of their defenders both before and during the game.
Milan defender Theo Hernandez proved to be the unlikely hero with only his second goal for France but that is only half the story.
France needed just five minutes to break the deadlock in Wednesday’s semi
Theo Hernandez netted with an acrobatic finish
Hernandez started the World Cup on the bench until his older brother Lucas, the first-choice left-back, ruptured his ACL in the opening 4-1 win over Australia.
Then Randal Kolo Muani’s goal was the second quickest scored by a substitute in a World Cup knockout stage match 44 seconds.
Yet despite having their backs against the wall and defending well, while getting a bit of luck, the French were still calm,
They are without Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante for the tournament and then lost Hernandez. But now, they look just as balanced and effective. Maybe, even more so.
It actually already started to go badly for Morocco before kick-off. They had been nursing quite a few players with issues and while West Ham’s Nayef Aguerd was named in the starting XI, he aggravated a muscle injury in the warm-up.
Morocco made life hard for Kylian Mbappe and Co
France were pushed to their limits in all areas of the pitch
Another defender, former Wolves favourite Roman Saiss, was carrying a hamstring issue but he lasted just 21 minutes before being replaced.
The atmosphere here was terrific also. It could have been in Casablanca, Fez, Tangier or Marrakesh such were the huge number of Moroccan fans inside the Al Bayt Stadium while there was only a small pocket of France fans.
Yet it took Didier Deschamps’ side less than five minutes to burst Morocco’s bubble.
Central defender Jawad El Yamiq chose the worst possible time to slip when attempting to cut out a clever, deep pass from Raphael Varane.
When Antoine Griezmann gets this sort of space you are in trouble. He picked out Kylian Mbappe and after a failed first attempt, his second shot deflected off El Yamiq into the path of Milan left-back Hernandez.
Randal Kolo Muani made a great impact off the bench as he netted
Muani’s 79th minute strike took the wind from Morocco’s sails
So yes, France were a bit lucky – there but there was nothing fortunate about the finish.
With a lot of work to do and from a tight angle, Hernandez was at full stretch with the ball in a high position but he managed a clean strike on goal.
Yet the bad luck continued for Morocco. Moments after Saiss was guilty of some poor defending to allow Olivier Giroud to belt a shot against the post, the defender was substituted .
Morocco played with all their hearts and inspired by their riotous fans, they still found spaces in the French defence and made life uncomfortable.
Lloris, so impressive against England, flung himself to the left to keep out a decent long-range strike from Azzedine Ounahi.
Morocco were cheered on fiercely by their loyal supporters
The spoils belonged to France at the final whistle as they set up their Argentina showdown
The Spurs keeper also did well to get a vital touch onto the post to keep out what would have been a stunning overhead kick from El Yamiq which would have made amends for his mistake at the start of the game.
Morocco enjoyed a good spell at the end of the first half and caused all sorts of problems at the start of the second.
Half-time sub Yahya Attiat-Allah and Youssef En-Nesyri wasted good chances while Ibrahima Konate delivered some great defending when it mattered for France.
But some of the defending had to be desperate as Morocco refused to give up and repeatedly went for the jugular, while remaining solid and tight at the back
Olivier Giroud, who has worked so hard for France at this World Cup including breaking England’s hearts, was replaced by Marcus Thuram who should have done much better with a free header.
Abderrazak Hamdallah danced his way through the French defence but delayed shooting and that was the key moment.
Soon after, there was the final dagger in the heart for this thoroughly-entertaining team.
Mbappe danced through the box and his shot deflected into the path of Kolo Muani who had an easy chance with his first touch of the ball.
So now, we are back to Mbappe v Messi. And looking at Messi’s form against Croatia, maybe we should be glad England are not in the final.