Sports

Nobody Can Stay in Front of These Frenchmen Forever

Morocco has no shortage of heroes. But on Wednesday, they couldn’t contain France’s.

Randal Kolo Muani gets hugged by teammates Aurelien Tchouameni (L) and Ibrahima Konate (R) after scoring France’s second goal.
Les Bleus en triomphe. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frank Fife/AFP via Getty Images.

Every defense has its limits, as the previously impenetrable Morocco found out Wednesday during its 2–0 World Cup semifinal loss to defending champions France. You can track Spain all the way through the maze sketched by its short passing and hound Portugal’s array of close-control artists into ineffectuality, but nobody, nobody can stay in front of Kylian Mbappé forever.

Morocco tried its hardest, and it had the better of the game for long stretches. Unfortunately, during those stretches it was already trailing, and France’s first goal, scored just five minutes into the game, came from staying in front of Mbappé. The goal did not require any particular brilliance on his part, just some flexibility from left-back Théo Hernandez. Antoine Griezmann was slipped in beyond the Moroccan defense, where his low cross found Mbappé. The star had two shot attempts blocked by sliding and lunging defenders, but the second of these pinballed out to Hernandez, who stutter-stepped his way into a leaping high kick past goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

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If Morocco was less secure in defense this time, it was perhaps due to the fact that it only got about 20 minutes of play from its starting center backs after Nayef Aguerd wasn’t fit to start and Romain Saïss was forced out by injury. France peppered the area behind the Moroccan goal with shot attempts, but managed just one more shot on target in the first 45 minutes. It slowed down too quickly at the end of the half, giving Morocco the opportunity to take multiple corner kicks and free kicks just before half, and nearly giving up the equalizer when defender Jawad El Yamiq hit the post with a bicycle kick attempt after a corner.

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Morocco kept the pressure up in the second half. Its Air Raid counters have been joys to watch in the open field—multiple runners streaking forward in concert, all picking the right lanes, the right spacing, the right timing. But they have left goals on the table through their execution in the proverbial red zone, rushing shot attempts or losing the ball underneath their feet in front of goal. Here, for the first time since the group stages, the team had the opportunity to apply sustained pressure and acquitted itself well, despite the scoreline. Morocco found success as England did: down the left side of France’s formation, thanks to Mbappé’s absolute indifference to playing defense, but it couldn’t find the final ball.

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France did, once more, about 11 minutes before the final whistle. This one did come through Mbappé’s uncontainable brilliance, receiving a simple ball at the edge of the penalty area and phasing through two defenders in about five feet of real estate. His deflected shot rebounded to substitute Randal Kolo Muani just in front of the goal, where he made no mistake. Sometimes you get the bounces; sometimes you don’t. For once, Morocco didn’t.

Despite the loss, there has been no shortage of Moroccan heroes at this tournament, starting with its manager, Walid Regragui, who somehow took over in August. After playing much of his career in France—there’s a photo of him and a young Olivier Giroud from where the pair, then at opposite ends of their careers, were teammates at Grenoble—Regragui moved into management in Morocco in 2014, where he won two league titles with different teams and an African Champions League title last season with Wydad AC. He coached a club team in Qatar for one season in between. That’s the extent of his coaching resume; something tells me he’ll add “World Cup semifinalist” to the top. Never let anyone tell you some coach isn’t good enough for a job just because they came from, say, MLS.

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This tournament will change the lives of many Moroccan players. Bounou is supposedly being looked at by Real Madrid and Manchester United. Breakout midfielder Azzedine Ounahi is reportedly a target for Barcelona. Defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat may wind up at Liverpool. (So might other World Cup stars Argentina’s Enzo Fernández and England’s Jude Bellingham.) It’s tough to argue against the money and prestige such transfers would bring them, but it would still be a little sad as a fan to see them go from places where they could be key players to somewhere they’re more likely to be cogs. Moving to some of the world’s biggest clubs can often rob a career of its momentum. Ask Ziyech, who’s hoping his tournament prompts someone to rescue him from purgatory at Chelsea.

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France, on the other hand, is full of players who have already found their roles at those big clubs, and not just Mbappé. Giroud failed to register a shot on target in the 2018 tournament despite starting six of seven games; this time around the forward whom his own international teammate Karim Benzema once compared to a go-kart has already scored four goals. Antoine Griezmann’s delivery and defensive efforts have been tremendous all tournament. He’s tied for the tournament lead in assists and behind only Lionel Messi and Mbappé in shot creating actions: passes, dribbles, or fouls drawn that lead to shots for his team. Substitute center back Ibrahima Konaté was immense against Morocco.

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Now France faces Argentina, iridescent in its 3–0 victory over Croatia Tuesday. You would suspect that all the pressure would be on the Argentines, looking to win this title as a capstone to Messi’s incomparable career, rather than the team that has already won one before. But in reality, there is no version of making the World Cup final that goes easy on the psyche. France, it seems, is just well-suited to dealing with the pressure. No one has repeated as champions since Brazil in 1962. No one has had a chance to do it since Brazil in 1998. France is ready for its opportunity. No one has been able to stand in its way.

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