FLOW Qatar Spotlight | History awaits, finding the balance, and the coaches have a think
Defensive frailties vs counter-attacking prowess = drama
This World Cup has been one of upsets, and the team that has created the most thus far is Morocco.
Since the start of the tournament, the north Aficans have been beating the odds, and will be looking to continue that trend when they face off against the defending champions France in the semifinals.
The Moroccans' success has been built on an impregnable defence, with just one (own) goal conceded in five matches. What is more important, they all seem to be enjoying their football.
France, the favourites, have a host of big-name players and are expected to make their second straight final.
But while Morocco can hold a cleansheet, with four in five games, France have not been able to keep one this tournament.
‘At-home’ Atlas Lions a dangerous prospect for France
With France's injuries prior to the start of the tournament, there was concern that their chances of repeating would take a huge hit. But unlike defending champions of the past 12 years, they have powered through, answering every question asked of them. No Benzema? Kylian Mbappe takes on the goal-scoring load with Olivier Groud chipping in to become France's all time men's national goalscorer. Pogba and Kante out? Fine, Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot will hold the fort. More than that, France are a team with great morale in the locker room, something that coach Didier Deschamps was tasked to fix since taking the job in 2012. The French depth has been tested and have hit all the markers so far. They are the best chance of a repeat champion in 50 years because of that.
But they are facing a team that believe that destiny is on their side as well. Morocco have been brilliant in taking out Belgium, Spain and Portugal. Against Portugal, their first choice defender was unavailable because of injury. Their captain, Romain Saiss, also had to come off. Defensively they have been stellar, only allowing one goal the whole tournamet, and that was an own goal against Canada in the group stage. They have a player of the tournament candidate in Sofyan Amrabat who has been the key to their midfield.
The fact that the majority of the team were born in other countries and chose to represent their ancestral home is the foundation of what we are now witnessing, an African and Arab team one game away from the World Cup final itself. Whatever happens afrer this, they should be proud of what they have achieved. The problem will be how healthy can they get their backline for Mbappé and Co? Maybe this is game where it just becomes a step beyond them, but I said that against Spain, and Portugal. With France playing essentially an away game with overwhemling Morrocan support and with strong historical background, count the Atlas Lions out at your peril.
A surprise may not be so surprising
Defending champions France are two victories away from becoming the first nation to win back-to-back FIFA World Cups, since Brazil in 1958 and 1962.
Les Blues, under the guidance of head coach Didier Deschamps, have looked more and more difficult to handle, despite missing key components in the likes of Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and N’golo Kante. What a story line it will be if France should win the 2022 Trophy?
Will they be the new powerhouse of international football? Where will Kylian Mbappe land in the discussion about who is the world’s best? At 23, with two World Cup titles already under his belt, I daresay he may be the only person in the discussion. But, standing in their way, for now, is Morocco.
The Atlas Lions might be more dangerous now than ever before. They’ve already surpassed expectations. They shouldn’t be here, so pressure is out the window. Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech have already made Morocco and by extension Africa proud, but they don’t look like they have packed their bags yet. To all, believing this a foregone conclusion, the World Cup has already made fools of most, so be careful of what suprises this fixture might cook up before you make your bets.
Deschamps, Regragrui have things to think about
They say offence wins games and defence wins titles.
If we follow the sentiment there, Morocco are the obvious choices against France. But I see things a little differently, and maybe so too do people who have been watching the World Cup. France are over-the-top favourites.
With so many very potent offensive weapons, I believe Morocco will have to count on the effectiveness of their counter-attacking because France will score and so they will have to as well.
Then there is the battle of the coaches. Can Walid Regragui afford to have Achraf Hakimi and Hakim Ziyech, who operate down the same side as French talisman Kylian Mbappé, try to join in on counter attacks, or stay home to help? Will Didier Deschamps invest in his tried and proven wing play at the expense of Ziyech, Hakimi and Sofiane Boufal running at his wingbacks in Lucas Hernandez and Jules Koundé? That may be a recipe for disaster and France have blinked defensively.
While, on the face of it, this may seem like a battle between extremely talented attackers and obdurate defenders, a closer look points to little intricacies that make this battle even more enthralling.