By MARK LORENZANA
If there’s one team in this World Cup tournament in Qatar that was bound to break Morocco’s stingy defense, it would have been the defending champion. And France did just that on the afternoon of Wednesday, Dec. 14 (Mexico City time), beating Morocco, 2-0, at the Al Bayt Stadium, in the city of Al Khor.
Les Bleus caught the Moroccans off guard and scored early, in the fifth minute, courtesy of French left-back Théo Hernandez. France came in fast and aggressive, with several Moroccan defenders stumbling on the field near the goal, scrambling to stop the oncoming rush of French scorers. It would have been a broken play for France, until the ball bounced perfectly in front of Hernandez, who launched into a flying left kick that found the back of the net: 1-0 France.
This was the first-ever legitimate goal against Morocco, whose otherworldly defense has only allowed one goal so far in this tournament — an own goal against Canada, which, technically, doesn’t even count.
Morocco didn’t panic, however, and showed admirable poise for a team that has reached its first-ever World Cup semifinals, the lone African country so far in history to do so. In the second half, Morocco actually controlled possession, and had countless shots at goal, which put the pressure on France. The Moroccans appeared to be faster and more focused, and it seemed that it would only be a matter of time until they scored and equalized the game.
Until the 79th minute, that is.
Parisian superstar Kylian Mbappe, showing off his fancy dribbling skills, evaded several Moroccan defenders while aggressively looking for his own goal. Mbappe fell short, but forward Randal Kolo Muani — who was subbed in a mere 44 seconds into the game — sent the ball home for France off the miss, putting the game out of reach for the Moroccans.
France took the victory and is through to its second finals in as many World Cups, but it didn’t come easy against a tough Morocco team, and France defender Jules Kounde knew it.
“We were on the back foot at times, but we had to work hard for each other,” Kounde said after the game. “This is a team that knows how to suffer.”
Suffer they did, but the French delivered in the clutch, showing their experience and championship pedigree. If there’s one team suffering now, it’s not France, but the team that had one of the most remarkable Cinderella runs in recent World Cup history. Nobody can take this achievement away from Morocco, but a loss is a loss, and they are still going home — and it stings, for sure. Still, the Moroccans can end their campaign on a good note, with a win against Croatia in the game for third on Saturday, Dec. 17.
And they are not done putting in the work.
“You can’t win a World Cup with miracles,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui. “You need to do it with hard work. And that’s what we’re going to do — keep working.”
France will defend its World Cup championship on Sunday, Dec. 18, against an Argentinian team and Lionel Messi, who are playing inspired soccer right now, after dropping their first game against Saudi Arabia in the group stages. France likewise dropped a game, its last match in the group stages, against Tunisia. But like the Argentina loss, that seems like an eternity now.
Les Bleus against La Albiceleste. Number 4 ranked France versus number 3 Argentina.
Kylian Mbappe against Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain teammates, but now on opposite sides of the field.
What more could any soccer fan ask for?