The records continue at the Qatar World Cup.
After Morocco’s Round of 16 win, they had made history for themselves, qualifying for the last eight for the first time ever. And yet, after a heroic win against Portugal in the quarterfinals, they had made history for the whole of Africa, becoming the first team from the continent to reach the semi-finals.
By the time this was over, there were tired Moroccan bodies and minds, heavy legs, yet their hearts remained. Then, the emotions of joy, tears, and laughter began to pour in. Now, the Atlas Lions have just one hurdle until the final on Sunday.
The North Africans will take on France, who did enough to get past England 2-1, with Harry Kane missing a late penalty.
A day before, Croatia dug deep to defeat one of the tournament’s favourites, Brazil, on penalties. Indeed, this is the only way they know how to do it. The Checkered Ones have won just one match in normal time in this tournament.
They will face Argentina, who almost did not qualify. The Albicelestes seemed destined to progress at the expense of the Netherlands, having led 2-0 for 82 minutes. And yet, a free-kick from the training ground in the 110th minute saw Wout Weghorst tuck in his second and force extra time.
These semi-final matches promise lots of twists and turns.
Argentina vs Croatia
Argentina’s quest for a third World Cup title will continue against a now-familiar Croatian team. Zlatko Dalic’s men claimed a comfortable 3-0 win against the South Americans in the group stage of the 2018 edition.
But then, apart from the peculiarities of this stage, plenty has changed with this Argentine side since they last faced each other. Lionel Scaloni’s men have gone on an unbeaten run of 36 matches. They are more compact and aggressive. Lionel Messi is playing in what looks like his final tournament and is more motivated.
Still, Scaloni will be wary of his side’s tendency to take their foot off the gas in the later stages of matches. The Australians came close to drawing level in the second round, and the Dutch pegged them back in the previous round.
Croatia is a different type of opponent. The European team does not score many goals, yet they are disciplined in defence. They also have a midfield trio of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, and Matteo Kovacic, who are tender with the ball, able to keep it for long spells.
The 44-year-old manager will require Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo de Paul, and Alexis Mac Allister to be aggressive in retrieving possession and snappy in finding Messi. He will likely revert to a 4-3-3 formation.
Julian Alvarez will look to stay on Dejan Lovren, while keeping close attention on Dominik Livakovic in goal.
For Dalic, the objective will be to close the spaces around Messi. Borna Sosa has his work cut out for him in getting close to Angel Di Maria. Ivan Perisic will also need to contribute defensively just as much.
The 56-year-old manager will also need to devise outlets to penetrate through the opponent’s vulnerable defence.
Prediction: Argentina win
France vs Morocco
France are two wins away from defending their World Cup title. Les Bleues have been excellent until now, although they seemed quite vulnerable against England.
Didier Deschamps’ only objective will be finding spaces through a tight, almost impenetrable Moroccan defence that has let in just one goal in this tournament.
Antoine Griezmann produced two assists to help defeat the Three Lions. He will need another special performance. He has the unique task of being the first player to press the opponent when they lose possession and retaining his composure while seeking out Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud.
This time, the tournament’s leading scorer will face his PSG teammate, Achraf Hakimi.The defender will hope to match him for pace.
Ousmane Dembele has been impressive at times. The Barcelona forward will get the nod to run at Yahia Allah and deliver crosses into the box.
Walid Regragui has lost his two senior defenders in Romain Saiss and Nayef Aguerd to injury. The former Wydad Casablanca manager will need to get Achraf Dari up to speed.
Hakim Ziyech has dropped deep to assist Hakimi in defence at times. He will retain this brief in an attempt to keep Mbappe quiet. Youssef En-Nesyri will be eager to help his side once again. He will have a tough job finding space in behind Rafael Varane and Dayot Upamecano.
There is the sense that Morocco are playing on weak legs after a gruelling quarterfinal match. Hence, France might just have an easier day.
Prediction: France win