By Ben Morse, CNN
Defending champion France ended Morocco’s 2022 World Cup dream on Wednesday thanks to a 2-0 victory at the Al Bayt Stadium.
Theo Hernández scored on five minutes with an acrobatic finish, with substitute Randal Kolo Muani tapping home late on as France reached its fourth World Cup final just four years after winning in Russia.
But Morocco, the first African team to reach the semifinal stage of the World Cup, can go home with its head held high after running France close before Kolo Muani’s decisive strike.
France is the first defending World Cup champion to reach the final in two decades. Lionel Messi and Argentina now await as France seeks to win back-to-back World Cup titles.
“Here we go again. It’s just an amazing feeling,” France captain Hugo Lloris said afterwards, per FIFA. “We suffered a lot, especially in the second half. We played too deep and they showed they’re not a team only focused on defending. They know how to attack. They deserve a lot of credit for this World Cup.
“Now the last step, the most difficult.”
Breaking of hearts
It felt like this semifinal was being played in Rabat or Casablanca rather than Al Khor, such was the support for Morocco.
Moroccan players were cheered like heroes every time they touched the ball, while their French counterparts were booed and whistled.
Not that France were flustered by the vociferous support for Morocco at the Al Bayt Stadium and it didn’t take long for Didier Deschamps’ team to take control of the match.
Antoine Griezmann — so brilliant in the quarterfinal win over England — took advantage of a slip from defender Jawad El Yamiq to break into the Morocco box, before crossing towards Kylian Mbappé.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward, twisting and turning in the box, had two efforts at goal blocked by despairing defenders, but the ball spun to Hernández, who acrobatically finished to give France an early advantage.
Remarkably, it was the first goal Morocco had conceded from an opposition player at the tournament and was the first time the team had trailed at Qatar 2022.
However, Morocco wasn’t flummoxed and minutes later Azzedine Ounahi drew a fine save from Hugo Lloris as the Atlas Lions grew into the match.
Olivier Giroud, who is joint-second goalscorer at the tournament behind Mbappé and Messi, missed two glorious opportunities for France to extend their lead.
First, his shot cannoned off the post as he broke towards the Morocco goal, before the AC Milan forward curled just wide shortly after Mbappé had been denied by Yassine Bounou.
Morocco’s riposte was El Yamiq’s brilliant bicycle kick, which came off the corner of the post, inches away from giving his country a route back into the semifinal.
After the break, it was one-way traffic, with Morocco pressing for an equalizer.
Countless times Morocoo played around a scrambling France defense, but between an errant touch or a last-ditch touch from a defender, the Atlas Lions couldn’t find an equalizer.
Morocco pushed and pushed, but to no avail and then Kolo Muani — just seconds after coming on as a substitute — tapped home a deflected effort to claim his first international goal and confirm France’s place in Sunday’s final.
Kolo Muani’s goal was the third-quickest goal for a substitute in World Cup history, the Eintracht Frankfurt forward scoring 44 seconds after coming on, according to Opta.
The goal seemingly took the air out of Morocco’s fans at the Al Bayt Stadium, though it continued to search for a miracle back into the game.
Having captured the hearts and minds of the footballing world, it was a sad end to Morocco’s aspirations. But having given reigning champion France a run for its money, Morocco leaves the competition knowing it has achieved more than just success on the pitch.
For France, an mouthwatering final against Argentina at Lusail Stadium on Sunday will see Mbappé face his PSG teammate, Messi, as the two nations clash to decide the 2022 world champion.
Argentina is chasing a third title, while Les Bleus is attempting to become the first side to retain the World Cup since Brazil managed the feat 60 years ago.
A World Cup winner with France as a player in 1998 and as Les Bleus’ coach in 2018, Deschamp said that he wants his players to savor their achievements at Qatar 2022.
“Obviously this was an important match. There will be one last one,” Deschamps said, per FIFA. “It’s been a month we’re together with the players. It’s never easy.
“But it’s been such a joy until now, and that my players, the group has been compensated for this success. We’re going to go after the title on Sunday.
“We’re going to take the time. I tell this to my staff and players: ‘Take every moment in the day to really appreciate and savor the moment.’ In four days, we are going to play for a world title. We’ll enjoy it now and get ready for the last match of this World Cup.”
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