Reigning world champions and title favorites France take on Morocco, the maker of African history, in what is sure to be a high-octane World Cup semi-final at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday.
France, who defeated England on Saturday, are aiming to become the first team in 60 years to retain the trophy, but can expect fierce resistance from the tournament’s surprise package.
Morocco’s mammoth run to the semi-finals, the first time an African nation has made it this far, thrilled fans at home and delighted the Moroccan diaspora in Europe and beyond.
The Atlas Lions will once again be cheered on by thousands of passionate fans in the stadium on the desert outskirts of Doha and will also be able to count on local support from Qatar, being the first Arab team ever to reach the semi-finals.
“It’s not over yet, our ambition is to go to the final,” former Moroccan international Aziz Bouderbala, part of the 1986 World Cup squad that reached the round of 16, told AFP.
“We are living in a historic moment. We are among the four best teams in the world but it is fabulous, it is delirious”.
The game will have added spice as France was the colonial powerhouse of Morocco and hundreds of thousands of people with Moroccan roots live and work in the country.
Morocco manager Walid Regragui, who was born near Paris and spent most of his playing career in the French league, believes his side have become neutral favourites.
“We have become the team people feel positive about in this World Cup,” said Regragui.
“We are showing the world what is possible with less talent, less quality, less money and what can be achieved with desire, hard work and belief.”
France will have fewer fans at the stadium but will be supported in person by President Emmanuel Macron.
On paper, Didier Deschamps’ team, full of talent and experience, should progress with a certain ease.
But if the France coach, who won the 1998 World Cup as a player, is concerned about the complacency ruining his team, he need only remind his players how Morocco got to this stage.
In the round of 16, playing aggressive and pressing football, Regragui’s side eliminated 2010 winners Spain on penalties before eliminating excellent Portugal, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo in tears.
Morocco previously announced their intention by winning Group F, beating Belgium and Canada and drawing with 2018 runners-up Croatia.
They have conceded just one goal in the whole competition but it will take another night of heroic defense if they are to hold off a powerful attack from France.
Kylian Mbappe, the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, attacks from the left while Olivier Giroud, level with Lionel Messi with four goals, occupies the traditional centre-forward role.
Antoine Griezmann was outstanding in a deeper and more creative role.
France defeated Poland and England in two knockout matches and pre-tournament worries about injury losses to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema faded.
But the French will also have to watch out for quick counter-attacks from Morocco, with Chelsea full-back Hakim Ziyech on the right wing and Sevilla striker Youssef En-Nesyri looking to exploit weaknesses in Deschamps’ defence.
Morocco’s willingness to run with the ball and then scramble to get it back should make for a high-energy game.
“Obviously we know they are having an outstanding World Cup and have beaten some great nations, so it’s a match we will take seriously,” said France right-back Jules Kounde.
“They are no longer a surprise package, they deserve to be here. We hope to make things difficult for them and qualify.”
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