France set to face 'away game' in World Cup semi-final against Morocco

Didier Deschamps' defending champions will have to overcome partisan crowd in crunch clash

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The captain of France was perplexed, demanding something be done. “I looked around and saw only Moroccan flags, and not French ones,” observed William Gallas. “I’d like to know why.”

Gallas was talking after the last encounter between Morocco and France, a 2-2 draw at the Stade de France, just outside Paris, 15 years ago.

His complaint was that a home game, an important warm-up for European Championship qualifying, had been made to sound and feel like an away fixture because of the unbalanced support among the almost 80,000 there. There was whistling of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

The vast majority there that night were not fans who had travelled from North Africa but residents of France, reminding that there are many with Moroccan heritage and that there will always be an edge to sporting meetings between a country that for much of the 20th century was a French protectorate.

Never have the football stakes been as high as for Wednesday’s Morocco-France clash in Al Khor, the prize a place in the World Cup final. Given the enthusiasm gathering around Morocco’s advance, no French player can imagine it feeling like anything but an away fixture, the atmosphere partisan.

“We’ve become the team people feel positive towards at this World Cup,” said Walid Regragui, the coach of the Atlas Lions, “as we’re showing the world what’s possible with less talent, less quality, less money, and what you can achieve with desire, hard work and belief.”

The limited talent and quality in the squad Regragui has so skilfully organised may seem less and less apparent the longer Morocco have advanced in Qatar, beating Belgium and knocking out Spain and Portugal.

But there are telling snapshots of the differences in resources between them and France, reigning world champions, when you look man-for-man through the line-ups of the semi-finalists.

Morocco 1 Portugal 0 - player ratings

French clubs have been the route to professional status for several of Morocco’s heroes in Qatar, including Regragui, born in France and a full-back in Ligue 1 or 2 for most of his playing career.

Those now playing in France have mostly spent the past four months looking up from the wrong end of the top table. Azzedine Ounahi, dynamic in midfield throughout the World Cup, and Sofiane Boufal, the dash of unpredictable menace in the forward line, will return later this month to Angers and a battle to haul themselves off the foot of Ligue 1.

The situation at Brest, who defender Achraf Dari joined from African club champions Wydad in the summer, is hardly better. Brest sit outside the relegation zone only on goal difference.

Up at the top of the French domestic hierarchy stands Kylian Mbappe, 19 Paris Saint-Germain goals this season and five for France in Qatar.

But ask Mbappe if there’s anybody who he’d less like to have marking his favoured left-wing position than Achraf Hakimi, and he would struggle for an answer. Mbappe has described Morocco’s Hakimi, his PSG colleague, as the “best right-back in the world”.

It’s one position where Morocco certainly trump France, who have been playing Jules Kounde at right-back, acknowledging that Kounde, of Barcelona, feels more comfortable as a central defender. Theo Hernandez, who gave away a penalty in France’s 2-1 win over England in the last-16, is also covering a position, left-back, where his brother Lucas, was first pick until injury ruled him out.

Fitness issues have heavily affected France’s team, with N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Presnel Kimpembe and Lucas Hernandez all ruled out. And Les Bleus are leaking goals far more than they did progressing through the last World Cup. In Russia four years ago, they kept four clean sheets on the way to the final. They have conceded in all five of their matches in Qatar.

It means Morocco’s impregnability is envied by Didier Deschamps, the France head coach.

“They’ve let in just one goal so far,” he said. “And when you look at the teams they have eliminated, nobody can call it a surprise they are where they are.”

Regragui’s challenge is to retain Morocco’s defensive rigour despite injuries. By the end of Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Portugal, he was without three of his first-choice back four, West Ham United’s Nayef Aguerd and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui unfit to start, France-born captain Romain Saiss stretchered off just before the hour.

Health bulletins on defenders, as well as on the commanding midfield anchor Sofyan Amrabat, who spoke of feeling “heavy-legged” against Portugal, will be closely monitored over the next two days – by millions of compatriots at home, all across Moroccan communities in France, and by the many new followers the World Cup’s self-assured underdogs keep gaining.

Updated: December 12, 2022, 4:14 AM