FIFA WORLD CUP: Morocco in dreamland (and semifinals); France holds off England, 2-1, continue repeat title hopes

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≡ QATAR 2022 ≡

There is such a thing as home-field advantage. And in an Arab state – Qatar – the first Arab team to make it as far as the World Cup semifinals – Morocco – held its nerve and defeated Portugal, 1-0 before a frenzied, pro-Morocco crowd of 44,198 at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha.

Defending champion France is still in position to be the first repeat champion since Brazil in 1958 and 1962, with a taut, 2-1 win over England. The French played mostly on defense and found just enough offense to win, and survived a missed penalty kick by English star striker Harry Kane – who made one early in the second half – in the 84th minute.

The semis will feature two European teams, a South American team and an African team. It’s the first time since 2002 that anyone other than European or South American teams have filled the semifinals; then it was co-host South Korea, now Morocco.

● Quarterfinals: Morocco 1, Portugal 0 No African team and no Arab team had ever made it as far as the World Cup semifinals, but Morocco’s intense defending, its team speed and a perfect cross-and-head near the end of the first half were enough to beat Portugal, 1-0.

Portugal possessed the ball for long stretches, but could not score. Neither could Morocco, although its counterattacks were dangerous; striker Youssef El-Nesyri’s header just over the bar in the seventh minute showed their scoring potential.

While Portugal regularly played with six or seven men in front of the ball on defense, Morocco had all 10, making finishing plays and runs to the mouth of goal impossible. And on another counter, and off of a corner, defender Yahya Attiat-Allah sent a perfect cross into the box and with Portuguese keeper Diogo Costa coming out to challenge, El-Nesyri’s header flew right past him and into the goal for a 1-0 lead in the 42nd minute.

That’s how the half ended and that’s essentially how the game ended, with a lot of twists and turns in between. Portugal was on offense continuously from then on, but produced nothing but frustration.

A Bruno Fernandes shot hit the crossbar in the 45th minute. Super striker Cristiano Ronaldo came on for Portugal in the 51st, but was unable to find the net. Fernandes sent a blast just over the crossbar in the 64th. Off a turnover, Joao Felix sent a curling shot that Moroccan keeper Yassine Bounou was barely able to block over the crossbar in the 84th. Ronaldo, on a contested sprint in stoppage time (90+1), had his shot saved by Bounou.

Then things really got crazy, as substitute midfielder Walid Cheddira picked up a yellow card for a hard foul at 90+1 and another at 90+3, so Morocco was down to 10 men. Even so, Portugal’s only strong chance to score was a missed header by defender Pepe at 90+7 and the game ended with delirium for the mostly-Moroccan fans in the Al Thumama Stadium.

In its five matches in Qatar, Morocco drew with Croatia, 0-0; beat Belgium, 2-0; beat Canada, 4-1 (with an own goal); beat Spain on penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie, and beat Portugal, 1-0. They’re hard to beat if you can’t score.

● Quarterfinals: France 2, England 1 No defending World Cup champion had reached even the semifinals of a subsequent World Cup since Brazil in 1998, when it lost to France, 3-0, after winning in 1994. Now the French, winners in 2018, will get a chance after a difficult 2-1 win over England at the Al Bayt Stadium.

The English controlled possession from the start, but the French got the lead in the 17th, off an Antoine Griezmann pass from the right side of the box to midfielder Aurelian Tchouameni, who sent a right-footed rocket from beyond the top of the box, bending into the left corner through a crowd of English defenders. Wow!

But England continued with pressure. French keeper Hugo Lloris had to make a big save on a Harry Kane break-through on goal in the 22nd, coming off his line, and that was almost knocked in on the rebound. Kane got another blast away in the 29th that Lloris had to punch away for a corner. And so it went, with England holding 58% of possession and a 5-3 edge on shots, but losing, 1-0.

The second half was more of the same, with England possession and France looking for chances in a game which became more and more physical. That paid off in the 52nd, as Tchouameni fouled English forward Bukayo Saka for a penalty in the 52nd and Kane buried it into the left corner of the French goal for the tie.

And the English kept coming. A Kane shot was saved by Lloris in the 62nd, and defender Harry Maguire left the left post with a header in the 70th. But France found moments, and after two good rushes at English keeper Jordan Pickford in the 75th, France had a corner in the 78th. Griezmann sent a seeing-eye cross from near his sideline all the way to the front of goal, where it found striker Olivier Giroud – France’s all-time goals leader – who headed it between two defenders and into the net for a 2-1 lead.

Two minutes later, however, French defender Theo Hernandez fouled England midfielder Mason Mount and another penalty was called. This time, however, Kane skied it over the goal and left England down, 2-1.

Mount missed another chance in the 88th as his try at goal sailed high, and then substitute striker Marcus Rashford just missed a goal on a free kick at 90+11 that sailed over the crossbar. France survived in a game with 24 fouls, including 14 by the French, and three yellow cards. England ended with 57% possession and 16 shots to eight (8-5 on goal), but it was not enough.


The semifinals are set (victories on penalty kicks shown as wins):

13 Dec. (Tue., 2 p.m. Eastern time) at Lusail Iconic Stadium: Argentina (4-1; goals 9-5) vs. Croatia (3-0-2; goals 6-3).

14 Dec. (Wed., 2 p.m. Eastern time) at Al Bayt Stadium: Morocco (4-0-1; goals 5-1) vs. France (5-1; goals 11-5).

This will be the third World Cup meeting between Argentina and Croatia, with the series tied at 1-1. Argentina won, 1-0, in France in 1998 and Croatia routed Argentina, 3-0, in group-stage play in Russia in 2018.

The France-Morocco match will have a historical backdrop, as the French had control of Morocco as a “protectorate” – colony – from 1912 to 1956, long before any of the current players were born. But the Moroccan team – and their crowd – will know about it.

The Associated Press reported that FIFA has opened disciplinary hearings against both Argentina and the Netherlands after their quarterfinal match turned physical at the end on Friday.

The Argentine bench came onto the field to control the Dutch team as it tied the match late in stoppage time, and then more confrontations after Argentina won on penalty kicks. A total of 48 fouls were called in the game – 30 on the Netherlands – and 14 yellow cards were handed out (8 for Argentina and 6 for the Dutch, including three at the end of the penalty kicks.

The FIFA Disciplinary Committee has already fined Saudi Arabia CHF 15,000 twice for team misconduct from its matches against Argentina (22 November) and Mexico (30 November).

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