He called it L’Equipe un exploit venu des trefondsa feat from within, and when you look at it that way, as a triumph over adversity as well as a valiant opponent, France’s progression to a second consecutive World Cup final looks that bit more impressive.
The performance? Not so much, actually. France coach Didier Deschamps admitted his team “were not perfect” when they beat Morocco in Wednesday’s semi-final and were “not perfect” when they overcame England in the quarter-finals either. Over the course of those two games they rarely looked like reigning world champions, but in the end, with a team ravaged by illness and injury, only the result mattered.
France’s 2-0 win over Morocco means this strange World Cup will end with the grand final its organizers wished it had beforehand. Argentina vs France means Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe, meaning the greatest player of his generation vs his heir apparent, both employed by Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain.
If the “dream final” was in doubt for a while in Al Khor on Wednesday evening it was because Morocco, the surprise package of this World Cup, made France sweat.
For a few moments in the match, with Sofyan Amrabat still outstanding in midfield, Morocco pushed Deschamps’ side harder than England did on Saturday. After conceding the opener to Theo Hernandez within five minutes, Morocco went on the offensive, taking risks, hogging forward players and threatening an equalizer until Randal Kolo Muani came off the bench to score the second goal of the France in the 78th minute.
With that, Deschamps and his players could finally start focusing on Sunday’s final. “We could have played better,” said the coach. “But we are in the final and both finalists will play against a better team than they have played so far in the tournament. Perhaps the team that makes the least mistakes will win the match.”
Looking back on France’s last World Cup final four years ago, that 4-2 win over Croatia in Moscow was a strange game, littered with mistakes at both ends of the pitch. Such was the semi-final on Wednesday, when both teams played at a frenetic pace and left plenty of space for their opponents to exploit. If Morocco were left to ultimately pay the price for giving Mbappé too much space in the build-up to his second goal, the same could be said of France’s defence; they cannot afford to give Messi as much time, space and encouragement as they have given Azzedine Ounahi, Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri.
For France, there were extenuating circumstances. It is well documented that they entered this tournament without Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema due to injury. They have since lost Lucas Hernandez to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and, on the day of the semi-final, Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot to what Deschamps described as “an ongoing malaise in Doha”. “We’re all trying to be careful so it doesn’t spread,” the coach said, adding that he expects both players to be fit by Sunday.
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France’s squad has changed a lot from Russia’s four years ago, but when squad sheets fell for the semi-final they looked barely recognizable. Only five of the starting eleven against Morocco (Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Mbappé) had started since the 2018 final. Jules Kounde (24), Ibrahima Konate (23), Theo Hernandez (25), Youssouf Fofana (23) and Aurelien Tchouameni (22) represent a new wave, as do Marcus Thuram (25) and Randal Kolo Muani (24), who came off the bench to kill Morocco’s resistance.
Tchouameni started all six of France’s games in Qatar. Kounde and Konate, who performed well in an impromptu defense against Morocco, are now starting four and three respectively. Griezmann is always looking better in a roaming midfield role. Mbappé, without being at his best against Morocco, still gave us moments of true quality.
The concern was that Mbappe was too focused on getting ahead and was offering Theo Hernandez insufficient defensive support. Achraf Hakimi was building up well with Ziyech and Deschamps eventually decided action was needed, replacing Giroud with Thuram, who came on on the left wing with orders to follow Hakimi when he goes forward and, where possible, push him away. It worked well, as did the decision to replace Ousmane Dembele with Kolo Muani, who scored 44 seconds into the game.
When you consider how many players are already missing, the strength in depth is particularly appreciable. But how good is this team from France? Good enough to beat Australia 4-1, Denmark 2-1, Poland 3-1, England 2-1 and Morocco 2-0, but their impressive progression through the knockout stages in Russia four years ago it was not equaled. Perhaps Mbappe and company are saving themselves for Argentina, who they memorably beat 4-3 in Kazan in 2018.
How well do you have to play to win the World Cup, though? The accepted wisdom is that you need to get in the shape of your life, but international football isn’t always like this. Sometimes it is necessary for the team with the best players to keep their nerve, work together and avoid doing stupid things. A sensible team with talented players and the right mentality will always have a chance. Under Deschamps, France is certainly reasonable.
France reached this year’s final after only briefly top gear against Australia. Against England and Morocco, they rode lightly on luck, but had enough quality, skill and ruthlessness to beat an opponent without the same winning tradition.
They are expected to have to raise the bar to defeat Argentina in the final but Deschamps would gladly accept any kind of performance as long as he gets the win, especially in the circumstances of this tournament when they have had to draw on deeper reserves in more ways than one.
Morocco manager Walid Regragui, who was born and raised in the southern suburbs of Paris, said in the post-match press conference that “for the past 20 years it can be said that France is the best footballing country in the world. They have the best players and the best coaches and they are the best team in the world”.
Spain, Germany or Italy may have something to say about the last two decades if we talk exclusively about international football, but France became the first team to reach consecutive men’s World Cup finals since Brazil in 1994, 1998 and 2002. become only the third team (after Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962) to win consecutive titles. All this, plus runners-up in the European Championship final in 2016 and Nations League winners in 2021, would have been unimaginable when they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994.
As for Deschamps, who was a French international in those dark days, he guided Les Bleus to World Cup glory as captain in 1998 and as manager in 2018. A third winner’s medal would have done him good, but when he was delivered Wednesday evening, said little beyond suggesting that “the team is more important than me”.
Increasingly, he finds himself referring to the squad rather than the squad he initially had in mind when France qualified for this World Cup. Hardly a day seems to go by without France suffering one setback or another, but, from the depths of their team and their depleted reserves of energy, they’ve found enough to get the job done. If they want to get past Messi and Argentina, they may have to dig even deeper.
(Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)