France had barely finished one feel-good story at the World Cup when it set its sights on another.
The defending champions defeated Morocco 2-0 on Wednesday, thanks to goals from Theo Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani. Next up is a final against Argentina and Lionel Messi, whose glittering resume is missing only a World Cup title.
“Any team with Messi is a completely different proposition,” Antoine Griezmann, a forward, said. “We’ve seen Argentina play and understand how they operate. They’re a difficult team to play against, and they’re in top form. It’s not just Messi; he’s surrounded by a good team.”
“We’ll be well-prepared,” Griezmann added with a smile.
France is the first defending champion since Brazil in 1998 to reach the final. Les Bleus will attempt to avoid Ronaldo and company’s fate that year, when they were defeated by France, and instead replicate the feat of another Brazilian team, the 1962 squad, which is the last to repeat as champions.
“We all know now that we have a chance to defend our title in the final on Sunday,” said coach Didier Deschamps. “That’s already a great accomplishment, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we’re even happier on Sunday evening.”
Even if that means they have to trample on a fairy tale or two.
Morocco has become the tournament’s darling after becoming the first African and Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal. Their supporters have packed stadiums across Doha and its outskirts – only Argentina has travelled further – and the Souq Waqif has resembled Casablanca or Marrakesh due to the abundance of Moroccan flags and jerseys.
The players celebrate their victories by hurling their coach, Walid Regragui, into the air and dancing with their mothers.
It appeared early on that Les Bleus would cruise into the final, as Argentina did against Croatia. Griezmann dribbled up the right side and into the box in the fifth minute, but saw no opening and crossed to Kylian Mbappe in front of the goal. Mbappe was snatched up by several defenders, who were able to clear the ball.
It was Hernandez, however, who extended his left leg high in the air and connected on a volley. The angle was perfect, and the ball went down rather than up and over the crossbar, leaving goalkeeper Yassine Bounou helpless.
If anyone expected Morocco to break, they haven’t seen much of the Atlas Lions this tournament.
France had to hold on for much of the rest of the game as Morocco created chance after chance. In the 44th minute, Jawad El-Yamiq nearly scored the tournament’s first goal with a bicycle kick that hit Hugo Lloris’ glove and then the post, and Sofyan Amrabat and Yahya Attiat-Allah both missed early in the second half.
Kolo Muani tapped the ball past Bounou with his first touch of the game after coming on just seconds earlier to give France an insurmountable lead.
“We wanted to score to make them doubt,” Regragui explained. “However, you pay for any mistakes you make, which we did with the second goal.”
All that remained was for France to put an end to one team’s dream while looking forward to sabotaging another’s.