Semi-final talking points: Miraculous Moroccans, France’s defence

France’s defence of their crown and Morocco’s miraculous run. All to play Lionel Messi in his date with destiny. England may be out but the semi-finals in Qatar promise to thrill.

Messi takes Argentina into the final in his last shot at World Cup glory as he bids to cement his legacy as the greatest player ever. But standing in his way are France or Morocco.

World Cup semi-final schedule

  • Argentina 3-0 Croatia
  • France vs Morocco – Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday; kick-off 7pm

France are looking to become the first side since Brazil in 1962 to win back-to-back World Cups. They do, though, come up against a history-making Moroccan side fighting to become the first African nation to reach the final.

The final stage of the World Cup in Qatar is brimming with storylines. Here Sky Sports picks out some of the best…

France’s defence of their World Cup

Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring
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Olivier Giroud scored the winner for France in Saturday’s quarter-final against England

France might not be quite the side they were in 2018, but four years on from their triumph in Russia, and they are firmly in the hunt to defend their World Cup title.

Injuries to Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Christopher Nkunku and Presnel Kimpembe threatened to derail their campaign, but head coach Didier Deschamps has assembled another group united in its quest to go all the way.

France’s key stats

  • France have never lost against Morocco, with all five of their previous meetings coming in friendlies (W3 D2).
  • Les Bleus are playing in their seventh World Cup semi-final – winning all three of their previous matches at this stage.
  • France’s Antoine Griezmann has been involved in eight goals in his last eight World Cup starts (3 goals, 5 assists).
  • Olivier Giroud has scored four goals so far in Qatar, and would be the oldest player to score five in a single edition of the tournament .

The togetherness of 2018 that was lost at the Euros has been rediscovered in Qatar. Deschamps knows how detrimental disharmony can be to a group at a major tournament. “You won’t win games because you have a happy camp, but you can lose games if you don’t have one.”

One thing that has helped Deschamps’ France win games is having Mbappe, the tournament’s top scorer.

Kylian Mbappe celebrates after scoring France's second goal against Poland
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Kylian Mbappe is the top scorer in Qatar with five goals

The 23-year-old has continued his impressive World Cup scoring record in Qatar, with his five goals this time out taking him to nine goals in 12 tournament appearances. Germany’s Miroslav Klose holds the all-time record with 16.

England saw to keeping him quiet on Saturday, doubling and sometimes tripling up on him. But the fear his presence instils in opposition teams creates space for those around him. Antoine Griezmann, in particular.

French Football expert Jonathan Johnson believes he is even more important to Deschamps’ side than Mbappe.

“He is absolutely vital, he was in Russia,” Johnson told Sky Sports News. “Didier Deschamps has always been very loyal to him perhaps too loyal given how his form suffered at Barcelona and then with Atletico Madrid.

Gary Neville’s view on France

“In the first half against England, they felt very dangerous – like a tiger ready to pounce,” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“They got the early goal and then sat back. I felt they were then dangerous if Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann or Ousmane Dembele got the ball. But it never materialised.

“I knew they would concede chances defensively and I thought they were so rash thinking of Dayot Upamecano, Theo Hernandez and Aurelien Tchouameni in the penalty incident.

“I thought they made some really poor decisions in the defensive third. That will cost them against Argentina or Croatia if they play them in the final and it could cost them against Morocco.

“The lack of composure in their defending will worry Didier Deschamps. In terms of depth, Kingsley Coman comes on for Dembele, but that’s about it. There’s nothing really else.

“I know France have missed Karim Benzema but there is a better collective spirit and they work better as a team with Giroud up there.”

“But Griezmann is now by far and away France’s most key player. I think he is a very strong candidate to potentially be player of the tournament, especially because France should be able to reach the final.”

Should France overcome their defensive shortcomings and leave Qatar victorious, they would be in esteemed company. The only other nations to win consecutive World Cups are Italy (1934, 1938) and Brazil (1958, 1962).

Will the Moroccan miracle continue?

Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air by players after the 1-0 win over Portugal in their World Cup quarter final
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Morocco’s head coach Walid Regragui was appointed less than three months before the World Cup

Whatever happens against France, this Morocco side will be remembered as heroes. They are the first African nation to ever reach the World Cup semi-finals.

It is a story that has defied all the odds.

Morocco head coach Walid Regragui had been in the job for just 100 days before Saturday’s quarter-final against Portugal. Only three African nations had ever reached that stage before.

Morocco’s key stats

  • Morocco are unbeaten in their last six World Cup matches (W3 D3), the longest unbeaten run by an African nation in the tournament’s history.
  • The Atlas Lions have kept four clean sheets so far at this tournament, with the last two sides to record five in a single edition going on to lift the trophy (Spain 2010, Italy 2006).
  • Morocco have made more clearances (137) and more tackles (104) than any other side at the World Cup.
  • Youssef En-Nesyri (2) could become just the fourth African to score 3+ goals in a single edition of the World Cup.

One of the secrets to his success has been incorporating the players’ families into the camp. Achraf Hakimi’s ritual of celebrating with his mother in the crowd immediately after each game has illustrated what a clever move that was.

“I think the coach had a fantastic idea to bring all the mums, because the mums are part of our culture,” former Morocco and Fulham defender Abdes Ouaddou told Sky Sports News. “Their mums bring them power and energy.”

Next up for Regragui and Morocco? Reigning world champions France. But do not write them off just yet. They’ve already toppled Ronaldo and Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Calling them ‘Giant Killers’ may be premature at this stage, but a win over France would certainly ensure they are worthy of the title.

The Atlas Lions have a few stars of their own. PSG’s Hakimi, Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui the most noteworthy. Others have emerged in Qatar.

Gary Neville’s view on Morocco

“It’s remarkable what they’ve achieved against Spain and Portugal,” he told the Gary Neville podcast.

“I was thinking about how we used to defend deep with England at times, but when I’ve seen Morocco sit in, they’ve also tried to play out of the tight areas in the defensive third.

“It takes real courage to try to do that and then they also try to counter-attack. Generally, it’s the story of the tournament and it wouldn’t surprise you if they went and beat France.

“That said, Mbappe is the difference. I’m not sure Morocco will be able to handle him. They’ve got injuries as well and tough games but it’s been one of the great stories of the tournament.”

Sofyan Amrabat has been the most impressive holding midfielder at this World Cup while Azzedine Ounahi has gone from relative unknown to revelation. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Yassine ‘Bono’ Bounou was the hero for the last-16 penalty shootout win over Spain and Youssef En-Nesyri the match-winner against Portugal.

Could Morocco be undone by injuries?

There are fears that injuries, especially at the back, could harm Morocco’s chances against France. Morocco’s impressive run has been defined by their defensive resilience.

No opposition player has scored against them, with Nayef Aguerd’s own-goal in their 2-1 win over Canada the only goal Bono has conceded at the tournament so far. No one boasts a better record.

That will be tested against France with West Ham’s Aguerd, Mazraoui and former Wolves defender Roman Saiss doubts for the semi-final on Wednesday night. Wide-man Ziyech is also carrying a knock.

“If they are injured it is a problem”, according to Abdes Ouaddou.

Morocco will have the entire continent of Africa and the Arab-speaking world behind them, willing them to go where no other African nation has gone before.

Messi to end the GOAT debate?

When Argentina beat Brazil in their own backyard to win the Copa America at the Maracana Stadium in the summer of 2021, Messi fell to his knees at the final whistle and the entire team ran to their captain.

This was his first trophy on the international stage, the only question mark over an otherwise glittering career. The World Cup is the final piece of the jigsaw.

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring from the penalty spot
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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring from the penalty spot against the Netherlands in Friday’s quarter-final

Having seen Cristiano Ronaldo accept defeat in his quest for this most evasive of prizes, the stakes have never been higher for Messi. Before his Copa America success, Ronaldo’s Euro 2016 victory had him marginally ahead in the now 14-year-long fight to be the best of a generation – maybe ever.

Now Messi has the chance to end the debate once and for all.

The celebrations of two summers ago show just how much winning this World Cup would mean to these Argentina players. They’re not just doing it for their country, they’re doing it for Messi.

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Lionel Messi played a pivotal role in Argentina’s 3-0 win over Croatia, where the South American side will now face either France or Morocco in Sunday’s final

The diminutive forward has lived up to his billing so far and almost carried his nation to the final. His five goals and three assists see only his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Kylian Mbappe alongside him in the race for the Golden Boot in Qatar.

Previously derided back home in Argentina for prioritising Barcelona over international football, Messi has put those concerns to bed in the past few years and timed his form perfectly for the latter stages in Qatar. He’s scored against Australia and the Netherlands in each of the knockout games on the way to the final four.

This is his chance to do what he could not in the final against Germany in Brazil in 2014. To equal the achievement of Diego Maradona. To bring the World Cup back to Argentina.

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