Match report as France beat Morocco 2-0 to set up a World Cup final against Argentina; Theo Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani were on target for Didier Deschamps' side; the Atlas Lions fought bravely but could not find a way through
Thursday 15 December 2022 07:51, UK
France set up a World Cup final showdown against Argentina as Randal Kolo Muani's goal 44 seconds after coming off the bench helped secure a 2-0 victory over Morocco in the last four.
Reigning champions France, seeking to become the first side to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962, took the lead after only five minutes when Theo Hernandez finished acrobatically from close range, but they were made to work for their win.
Morocco, the first African side in history to contest a World Cup semi-final following historic wins over Spain and Portugal, were roared on by another partisan crowd at Al Bayt Stadium and subjected France to heavy pressure, with Jawad El Yamiq striking the post as they fought valiantly despite injuries to key players.
France, though, showed their tournament pedigree, defending resolutely then seizing their chance to kill the game when Kolo Muani slid home Kylian Mbappe's deflected effort at the far post in the 79th minute, his first international goal leaving the Moroccans heartbroken.
France now face Argentina, who beat Croatia 3-0 in the other semi-final, in Sunday's final as they seek to defend their crown in a contest which pits Mbappe against Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Lionel Messi, while Morocco have to settle for a third-place play-off to conclude their outstanding tournament.
Morocco boss Walid Regragui had opted to switch to a back five to contain France's considerable attacking threat but his plans were immediately disrupted when centre-back Nayef Aguerd, listed as a starter having missed the win over Portugal through injury, was forced to withdraw before kick-off.
France immediately capitalised on the upheaval, their early goal created by the excellent Antoine Griezmann as an El Yamik error allowed him to cut the ball back for Mbappe, whose shot was blocked before falling to Hernandez to convert.
Hernandez's well-taken strike made him the first opposition player to score past Morocco, who had kept four clean sheets in the previous five games at the tournament, and the Atlas Lions sought an immediate response at the other end.
Azzedine Ounahi drew a fine save from Hugo Lloris with a long-range effort and Hakim Ziyech dragged another shot wide, but France then went close themselves when Olivier Giroud fired against the post from Ibrahima Konate's long pass.
Morocco were dealt another blow in the aftermath of that Giroud opportunity when Romain Saiss, Aguerd's usual centre-back partner and another injury doubt before the game, had to be taken off.
Still, though, Morocco continued to cause France problems, particularly down the right flank, where Hernandez was often left exposed by Mbappe's advanced positioning, leaving him struggling to deal with the twin threat of Ziyech and Achraf Hakimi.
Morocco had a penalty appeal waved away, with Sofiane Boufal deemed to have fouled Hernandez rather than the other way around, but France continued to threaten at the other end, with the early goal forcing Morocco to take more risks.
Aurelien Tchouameni, scorer of France's opener against England, created two opportunities in quick succession for Mbappe and Giroud, but it was Morocco who went closest before the break, El Yamiq's overhead kick coming back off the post following a corner.
Regragui's side finished the first half strongly and picked up where they left off in the second, pinning France back and, for the first time in the tournament, dominating possession, but their opponents proved difficult to break down.
Konate was particularly impressive having started in place of Dayot Upamecano, who was ruled out due to illness along with Adrien Rabiot, and France were also helped at times by Morocco's lack of ruthlessness in the box.
At one point, substitute Abderrazak Hamdallah looked primed to score but took too long to get his shot off, with France's second goal arriving not long afterwards as Kolo Muani, who had just replaced Ousmane Dembele, and only got his call-up to the squad following a late injury to Christopher Nkunku, sparking wild celebrations.
Morocco kept fighting, the brilliant Ounahi firing over in stoppage time, then seeing a deflected effort fall to Hamdallah, who again failed to capitalise, but in the end it proved a step too far for the Atlas Lions, who can be proud of their efforts nonetheless.
France will take on Argentina in the World Cup final on Sunday, with kick-off at 3pm.
Morocco will face Croatia in the third-place play-off on Saturday, the game kicking off at 3pm.
You can follow both encounters on Sky Sports' digital platforms.
It is Argentina against France in the World Cup final and that means one storyline will dominate. Lionel Messi against Kylian Mbappe. The world's best against the possible heir to his throne.
The pair, team-mates at club level with Paris Saint-Germain, will go head to head for World Cup glory. Tied on five goals at the top of the scoring charts, it might also be a winner-takes-all encounter for the Golden Boot. Maybe even the Golden Ball too.
The stakes could hardly be higher but it is undoubtedly Messi who needs it more. The 35-year-old confirmed in the wake of Argentina's semi-final win over Croatia that Sunday's game will be his final World Cup appearance. His final shot at the biggest prize of all.
Mbappe, although 11 years Messi's junior, knows precisely how it feels to win it having done so four years ago in Russia. Win again on Sunday and he will have done it twice before his 24th birthday.
That would be a crushing outcome for Messi, who has been in dazzling form throughout the tournament, fuelled by a sense of destiny and delivering arguably his best performance yet in Tuesday's 3-0 win over Croatia in Argentina's semi-final.
Mbappe, meanwhile, produced his best performances earlier in the tournament, scoring doubles against Denmark in the group stage and Poland in the last 16. Against Morocco, as in the quarter-final win over England, he exploded into life only occasionally.
Still, though, he, like Messi, looks primed to take centre stage in the biggest game of all. Will Messi crown his legacy with his first World Cup in his final appearance in the competition? Or will he be thwarted by France, and a pretender to his throne?
France boss Didier Deschamps said: "It's never easy but it's been such a joy. We're going to go after the title on Sunday.
"We're going to enjoy the time. I tell this to my staff and players. Take every moment in the day to really appreciate and savour the moment. In four days we are going to play for a world title.
"You don't lose, you just learn. You need to use those bad moments to achieve the target. The most important thing is to see the stars in people's eyes when you celebrate and win.
"Your whole country is behind you, your friends. I feel very proud, it's a dream come true. I want to win even more trophies."
Morocco's Walid Regragui said: "The most important thing is to have shown a good face.
"We have shown that football in Morocco exists and that we have great supporters.
"We gave it our best. This loss doesn't take away everything we gave before."
Mbappe showed his electrifying pace at times while Ibrahima Konate defended assuredly throughout, but Antoine Griezmann was once again France's outstanding performer.
The Atletico Madrid forward, consistently excellent in Qatar, produced another hugely influential display, creating four chances to take his overall total at the World Cup to 21 and put him back above Messi as the top creator at the tournament.
"I know everyone wants me to talk about Mbappe and build up the Mbappe vs Messi battle in the final, but this has been the Griezmann show," said Sky Sports News senior reporter Melissa Reddy. "He has been France's standout player.
"He was absolutely everywhere on the pitch against Morocco. Everything they built up in terms of attack came from him. Some of their last-ditch defending was him. He is an unreal player."
Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher, meanwhile, felt Konate was even better.