For the quarter-final roundup, see here.
It was time for the semi-finals of the 2022 World Cup. Three of the four teams to reach this stage had been here before. All three of those had been finalists before. Two of them had been finalists four years ago in Russia. Two of them had won the World Cup twice before. Two had never won it, and one had never been as far as the semi-finals before.
Who would go on to world football’s showpiece event? Who would suffer the ignominy of the third place playoff?
Argentina vs Croatia
In many ways, the clash of Argentina and Croatia was the clash of two experienced, talented playmakers. Lionel Messi of Argentina, against Luka Modric of Croatia. Both players had been sensational over the course of their careers, and both had played in – and lost – World Cup finals. Messi had, going into the game, made 170 appearances for Argentina, and had scored 95 goals. Modric had 160 Croatia caps, and 23 goals, though Modric’s role was not so much about scoring goals, rather it was about dictating play.
The two would be familiar with each other, with Messi having played for Barcelona against Modric’s Real Madrid, on numerous occasions. They had faced each other at the 2018 World Cup, in a group stage match that saw Croatia win 3-0. Modric scored on that occasion, and he would be extremely happy with a repeat. Argentina would be desperate to give Messi a World Cup send-off to remember. The stage was set.
A cautious (in the words of the commentators, cagey) opening half-hour ended with a key and somewhat controversial penalty decision, when Julian Alvarez was caught by Croatia ‘keeper Dominik Livakovic in the box. An argument could have been made that Alvarez was not in control of the ball, but the ref pointed to the spot, and did not change his mind. Up stepped none other than Lionel Messi, who blasted the ball home, to put Argentina in front, to the delirious delight of the Argentina supporters. A few minutes later, the lead had doubled. Alvarez ran at the Croatia box, received a generous amount of luck with the bounce off the ball (off Croatian players, back perfectly into his path), and slammed the ball home, to grant Argentina a huge advantage.
Croatia needed to come out and play, yet with an hour played, they had not had a shot on target. Argentina had had six shots on target, and might have counted themselves a little unlucky to be further ahead. They repeatedly looked dangerous on the break, and Croatia, when placed into a scenario where they had to produce some magic, looked toothless. Meanwhile Argentina bared their teeth again, and it was another sparkling moment of Messi magic that made a second goal for Alvarez. He completely outwitted and out-dribbled a defender on the edge of the box, got into the box, and slotted the ball back for Alvarez to slam the ball into the back of the net. It was 3-0, and barring an absolute miracle from a demoralised Croatia side, surely game over. Croatia were putting together a few half-chances, but they lacked any conviction. Argentina saw out the remainder of time with no noteworthy problems, and Luka Modric’s World Cup experience was over, barring the third-place playoff game that no one wants to play in (assuming he plays). Argentina were into the 2022 World Cup final.
France vs Morocco
France were bidding to become the first team to retain the World Cup since Brazil did, in 1962. Their performances at the 2022 World Cup had been steady, if not exhilarating, and in Mbappe and Giroud, they had two players who were proving to be accomplished goal-scorers in Qatar, and they had the experience of knowing precisely what it would take to get over the finish line.
Standing in their way was a plucky, and fearless, Moroccan side, that had already dispatched the 2010 World Cup winners Spain, and 2016 European Championship winners Portugal. Morocco had topped a group featuring 2018 runners-up Croatia, and 2018 semi-finalists Belgium, so perhaps their ‘shock’ results weren’t so shocking, and they had proven themselves to be organised, defensively resilient, and dangerous on the break. Underestimating them was foolish, not to mention disrespectful.
Would Morocco be tired? Injuries, and extra-time, had pushed them to the edges of their endurance. Minutes before kick-off, they were forced to replace central defender Nayef Aguerd for Achraf Dari, and had carefully nursed other players through fitness issues. Was it possible their stretched squad would struggle? Well, after five minutes, they felt the pain. A pass was played through to Griezmann, though perhaps the ball should have been intercepted. Griezmann had a free path into the box from the right, and pulled the ball back to Mbappe. Mbappe’s efforts ricocheted into the air, and the ball was met on the volley by Theo Hernandez, who put the ball home from close range. From a Moroccan point of view, going a goal down so early was disastrous, and it buoyed the French.
They did offer some warning signs. Ounahi got through to the edge of the French box, and his cracking effort was met by Lloris. It was an indicator that France could not switch off. Morocco had another good moment, with some neat forward passing leading to a rushed, snatched shot that went wide.
Morocco appeared to be willing to live life dangerously. Short passes back to the ‘keeper, short passes from the ‘keeper, with opposing players rushing in… they were playing with confidence, despite losing, but would such moves cost them? Or could their confidence bring them some form of glory? The French were looking hard to break down, yet the goal-scorer Hernandez was looking a little vulnerable, whenever players got at him.
Morocco got a major bit of luck, when they lost the ball to France on 35 minutes, and both Mbappe and particularly Giroud, failed to hit the target. How big would such moments prove to be? Morocco responded by getting physical, France responded by keeping the ball for a bit.
Right near the end of the half, Morocco nearly levelled from a corner, and it was oh so close to being a great overhead kick goal, but a combination of Lloris’ glove and the post denied what would have been one of the best goals of the tournament. Morocco were asking questions of France, and moments later, had another corner. Were the French a little rattled? Well, the second corner came to nothing, with Lloris claiming the ball. A similar scenario played out at a freekick a few moments later, though this time Lloris punched it clear. Another freekick swiftly followed, in a more central position, and Morocco were once again not quite sharp enough to put it away. It would prove to be the final action of the first-half.
Mbappe served up a warning of his potency early on in the second-half, flashing the ball across the box after a powerful run down the left. He nearly connected with a pass played into the box, but was crowded out by Hakimi. At the other end, Morocco were peppering the French box with crosses, and were making some fine moves. Mbappe was on the receiving end of a strong-yet-fair tackle, and he arguably displayed the unfortunate side of his game, namely a dive, but to the ref’s credit, he was not fooled.
Morocco kept getting in behind the French defence, but a combination of poor finishing, and a small lack of quality with the crosses, along with some good French defending, kept them out. Nonetheless, Morocco were seeing a lot more of the ball (nearly 60% possession), and they were starting to create more and more chances. The French had yet to keep a clean sheet in Qatar, so the odds appeared to favour a Moroccan goal at some stage. They continued to make neat, sweet moves, but the final ball, that last flash of brilliance, continued to elude them. France had a few very fast breaks, with Mbappe, Dembele, and Marcus Thuram (son of 1998 World Cup winner Lillian Thuram) creating problems for Morocco.
Despite exerting pressure, Morocco eventually paid for their missed chances. With little over 10 minutes of time remaining, Mbappe wriggled his way into the Moroccan box, got a deflected pass away to his right, and the ball found fresh substitute Randal Kolo Muani, who, with his first touch, poked the ball into the back of the net. The second goal of the match was always going to be absolutely crucial, and with France now leading 2-0, it seemed almost inevitable France would reach the final.
A few words had to be spoken about Griezmann. The veteran forward was often found… in the French box, blocking and clearing chances. The effort he put in bore mentioning. So too did the effort of Moroccan players, who continued to try, and continued to go desperately close to scoring, even as added time ticked away. It was not to be for them, and France won, to move on to their second consecutive World Cup final.