France, the imperfect back-to-back World Cup finalists

The called it team a feat from the depthsa feat from the depths, and when you look at it that way, as a triumph over adversity as well as a valiant opponent, France’s progression to a second consecutive World Cup final looks that bit more impressive.

The performance? Not so much, in truth. France coach Didier Deschamps admitted his team “weren’t perfect” in beating Morocco in Wednesday’s semi-final and that they “weren’t perfect” when they overcame England in the quarter-final either. Over the course of those two matches they rarely looked like reigning world champions, but, ultimately, with a squad ravaged by illness and injury, only the result mattered.

France’s 2-0 win over Morocco means that this strangest of World Cups will end with the showpiece final its organizers would have desired beforehand. Argentina vs France means Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe, which means the greatest player of his generation against his heir apparent, both of them under the employment of Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain.

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

For of the game, with Sofyan Amrabat outstanding again in midfield, Morocco pushed Deschamps’ team harder than England did on Saturday. After conceding the first goal to Theo Hernandez within five minutes, Morocco went on the offensive, taking risks, committing players forward and threatening an equalizer until Randal Kolo Muani came off the bench to tap home France’s second goal on 78 minutes.

(Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

With that, Deschamps and his players could finally begin to focus on Sunday’s final. “We could have played better,” the coach said. “But we’re in the final and both finalists will be playing a better team than they’ve played so far in the tournament. Maybe the team who makes fewer mistakes will win the game.”

Thinking back to France’s last World Cup final four years ago, that 4-2 victory over Croatia in Moscow was a strange game, strewn with errors at both ends of the pitch. So was Wednesday’s semi-final as both teams played at a frantic pace and left large gaps for the opposition to exploit. If Morocco were left to pay the price, eventually, for allowing Mbappe too much space in the build-up to the second goal, similar could be said of France’s defending; they can’t afford to give Messi as much time, space and encouragement as they gave Azzedine Ounahi, Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri.

For France, there were mitigating 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 injury. Since then they have lost Lucas Hernandez to a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and, on the day of the semi-final, Dayot Upamecano and Adrien Rabiot to what Deschamps called “an illness going round in Doha”. “We’re all trying to be careful so it doesn’t spread,” the coach said, adding that he expects both players to be fit for Sunday.

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The France squad is much-changed from that in Russia four years ago, but by the time the team sheets dropped for the semi-final it barely 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), who came off the bench to kill off Morocco’s resistance.

Tchouameni has started all six of France’s games in Qatar. Kounde and Konate, who performed well in a makeshift defense against Morocco, are now up to four and three starts respectively. Griezmann is looking better and better in a roaming midfield role. Mbappe, without being at his best against Morocco, still provided moments of real quality.

The concern was that Mbappe was too focused on going forward and offered Theo Hernandez insufficient defensive support. Achraf Hakimi was linking well with Ziyech and eventually Deschamps decided intervention was needed, replacing Giroud with Thuram, who came on at left wing under orders to track Hakimi when he goes forward and, where possible, to push him back. That worked well, as did the decision to replace Ousmane Dembele with Kolo Muani, who scored within 44 seconds of coming on.

When you consider how many players are already missing, the strength in depth is particularly creditable. But how good is this France team? Good enough to beat Australia 4-1, Denmark 2-1, Poland 3-1, England 2-1 and Morocco 2-0, but their impressive progression through the knockout stages in Russia four years ago has not been matched. Maybe Mbappe and his team-mates are saving themselves for Argentina, whom they memorably beat 4-3 in Kazan in 2018.

Mbappe, France, Argentina

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

How well do you have to play to win the World Cup, though? The accepted wisdom is that you have to reach the form of your life, but international football is not always like that. Sometimes it requires the squad with the best players simply to hold their nerve, work together and avoid doing anything stupid. A sensible squad with talented players and the right mindset will always have a chance. Under Deschamps, France are certainly sensitive.

France have reached this year’s final having hit top gear only briefly, against Australia. Against England and Morocco, they rode their luck slightly but had just enough quality, know-how and ruthlessness to see off an opponent without the same winning tradition.

They will be expected to have to raise their game to defeat Argentina in the final, but Deschamps would happily accept any kind of performance just as long as they get their victory — especially in the circumstances of this tournament, when they have had to draw on deeper reserves in more ways than one.

Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who was born and raised in the suburbs south of Paris, declared in the post-match press conference that “over the past 20 years you can say France is the top footballing country in the world. 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 past two decades if we are talking purely about international football, but France have become the first team to reach consecutive men’s World Cup finals since Brazil in 1994, 1998 and 2002. They will hope to become only the third team (after Italy in 1934 and 1938 and Brazil in 1958 and 1962) to win back-to-back titles. All of this — plus runners-up in the European Championship final in 2016 and winners of the Nations League in 2021 — would have been unimaginable when they were failing 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 World Cup glory as captain in 1998 and as coach in 2018. A third winner’s medal would do him nicely, but when this was put to him on Wednesday evening, he said little beyond suggesting that “the team is more important than me”.

Increasingly, he finds himself meaning the squad rather than the team he originally had in mind when France qualified for this World Cup. Barely a day seems to go by without France enduring some setback or another, but, from the depths of their squad and their depleted energy reserves, they have found enough to get the job done. If they are to overcome Messi and Argentina, they might have to dig deeper still.

(Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)


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