France, the imperfect World Cup finalists in a row

L’Equipe called it Un Exploit Venu des Trefondsa feat from the deep, and viewed as such, as a triumph over adversity and a brave opponent, France’s rise to their second consecutive World Cup final looks a little more impressive.

The performance? Actually not so much. France coach Didier Deschamps admitted his side were “not perfect” in Wednesday’s semi-final win over Morocco and that they were “not perfect” in defeating England in the quarter-finals either. Over the course of those two games, they seldom looked like reigning world champions, but in the end, with a side plagued by illness and injuries, it was only the result that counted.

France’s 2-0 win over Morocco means this strangest of World Cups ends in the final the organizers had previously wished for. Argentina vs France means Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe, meaning the greatest player of his generation takes on his heir to the throne, both under the employ of Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain.

If the “dream final” on Wednesday evening in Al Khor was in doubt for a while, it was because Morocco, the surprise package of this World Cup, made France sweat for it.

While Sofyan Amrabat once again excelled in midfield, Morocco at times pushed Deschamps’ team harder than England on Saturday. After Theo Hernandez conceded their first goal within five minutes, Morocco went on the offensive, taking risks, signing forwards and threatening to equalize until Randal Kolo Muani came on for France’s second goal in the 78th minute.

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

This finally allowed Deschamps and his players to focus on Sunday’s final. “We could have played better,” said the coach. “But we are in the final and both finalists will play against a better team than in the tournament so far. Maybe the team that makes fewer mistakes will win the game.”

Thinking back to France’s last World Cup final four years ago, the 4-2 win over Croatia in Moscow was an odd game, littered with errors at both ends of the pitch. It was the same in Wednesday’s semifinals, when both teams played at a frenetic pace, leaving huge gaps for the opposition to exploit. If Morocco ended up paying the price for giving Mbappe too much leeway leading up to the second goal, the same could be said of France’s defence. They can’t afford to give Messi as much time, space and encouragement as they gave to Azzedine Ounahi, Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri.

France had extenuating circumstances. It is well documented that they went into this tournament without Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Christopher Nkunku and Karim Benzema due to injuries. They have since lost Lucas Hernandez to an anterior cruciate ligament tear and, on the day of the semifinals, Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot to what Deschamps called “a disease circulating in Doha”. “We’re all trying to be careful so it doesn’t spread,” said the manager, adding that he expects both players to be fit for Sunday.

Where to go next the athlete

The France squad has changed a lot compared to Russia four years ago, but when the team lists for the semi-finals fell, he hardly felt recognizable. Only five of the starting XI against Morocco (Hugo Lloris, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Mbappe) had started in the 2018 final. Jules Kounde (24), Ibrahima Konate (23), Theo Hernandez (25), Youssouf Fofana (23) and Aurelien Tchouameni (22) represent a new wave, as do Marcus Thuram (25) and Randal Kolo Muani (24). came off the bench to take out the Moroccan resistance.

Tchouameni started all six of France’s games in Qatar. Kounde and Konate, who did well in a makeshift defense against Morocco, are now on four and three starts respectively. Griezmann keeps looking better in a roaming midfield role. Even if Mbappe wasn’t at his best against Morocco, he still provided quality moments.

The concern was that Mbappe was too focused on moving forward and Theo Hernandez was providing insufficient defensive support. Achraf Hakimi linked well with Ziyech and eventually Deschamps decided an intervention was needed and replaced Giroud with Thuram, who came on the left wing with orders to chase Hakimi if he goes forward and him if possible , push back. That worked well, as did the decision to replace Ousmane Dembele with Kolo Muani, who scored within 44 seconds of being substituted on.

Considering how many players are already missing, the strength at depth is particularly commendable. But how good is this French team? Good enough to beat Australia 4-1, Denmark 2-1, Poland 3-1, England 2-1 and Morocco 2-0, but their impressive run in the knockout stages in Russia four years ago was not reached. Perhaps Mbappe and his team-mates are saving for Argentina, whom they memorably defeated 4-3 in Kazan in 2018.

Mbappe, France, Argentina

Mbappe in the win against Argentina in 2018 (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

But how well do you have to play to become world champion? The common wisdom is that you have to get in the form of your life, but international football isn’t always like that. Sometimes the squad with the best players just needs to keep their cool, work together and not do anything stupid. A sensible squad with talented players and the right attitude always has a chance. Under Deschamps, France is certainly sensible.

France have reached this year’s final after only briefly hitting the stride against Australia. They pushed their luck a little against England and Morocco, but had just enough quality, know-how and ruthlessness to defeat an opponent without the same winning tradition.

They’re expected to up their game to beat Argentina in the final, but Deschamps would happily accept any kind of performance as long as they get their win – especially in the circumstances of this tournament where they’ve had to move deeper reserves into more as a respect.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who was born and raised in a suburb south of Paris, said in the post-match press conference: “You could say that France has been the best footballing country in the world for the last 20 years. They have the best players and the best coaches and they are the best team in the world.”

Spain, Germany or Italy might have something to say about the last two decades if we only talk about international football, but France are the first team to reach a men’s World Cup since Brazil 1994, 1998 and 2002 in a row . They will hope to become only the third team (after Italy 1934 and 1938 and Brazil 1958 and 1962) to win back-to-back titles. All of this – plus runners-up in the 2016 EURO final and winners of the 2021 Nations League – would have been unimaginable when they failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994.

As for Deschamps, who was a France international in those dark days, he led Les Bleus to the World Cup title in 1998 as captain and as coach in 2018. A third winner’s medal would do him good, but when it was bestowed on him on Wednesday evening, he said little except that “the team is more important than me.”

He increasingly means the squad and not the team he originally had in mind when France qualified for this World Cup. Hardly a day seems to go by that France don’t suffer the odd setback or two, but from the depths of their squad and depleted reserves of energy they’ve found enough to get the job done. If they want to beat Messi and Argentina, they might have to dig even deeper.

(Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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