History-making Morocco look to pull off another upset against holders France in the World Cup semi-finals on Wednesday with Argentina and Lionel Messi lying in wait for the winner.
France know victory against surprise package Morocco would leave them just one win away from becoming the first team in 60 years to successfully defend the trophy.
Didier Deschamps’ men are heavy favourites to win at the Al Bayt Stadium but face a Morocco team that have conceded just one goal in a remarkable giant-killing run that has seen them become the first team from Africa ever to reach the last four of a World Cup.
Morocco have already upset 2010 champions Spain and highly rated Portugal on the way to the semi-finals, a record that left France captain Hugo Lloris warning his team-mates against complacency.
“When a team is capable of beating Belgium, Spain and Portugal, and finish top of their group, it is because they have lots of quality on the field and undoubtedly off it too, in terms of cohesion and team spirit,” Lloris said.
“They will be formidable opponents, and on top of that there will be a hostile atmosphere in the stadium.”
Deschamps’ team are closing in on a third World Cup triumph in seven tournaments but will be aware that no team have retained the World Cup since Pele’s Brazil performed the feat in 1962.
– Fan factor –
Wednesday’s game will have added spice given France was Morocco’s colonial power and more than a million Moroccans live in the country.
Their not-so-secret weapon on Wednesday will be the incredible support from fans in the stadium and across the Arab world.
“There is a popular fervour behind them,” said Deschamps. “It will be very noisy and my players have been warned about that. They know what to expect.”
Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who was born near Paris and spent most of his playing career in the French league, believes his team have become the neutral’s favourite.
But he is adamant his side are not just there to make up the numbers.
“If we are happy just to reach the semi-finals, and some see that as enough, I don’t agree,” said Regragui.
“If you get to the semi-finals and you are not hungry then there is a problem.”
“The best team in the tournament, Brazil, is already out. We are an ambitious team and we are hungry but I don’t know if that will be enough,” he added.
– Dream final? –
Morocco will be out to wreck the possibility of what many neutrals would see as a dream climax to the tournament, pitting Les Bleus’ Kylian Mbappe against his Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Messi in a France-Argentina final on Sunday.
Messi, playing in his fifth World Cup, has been a man on a mission during the finals in Qatar, desperately hoping to crown his career by leading Argentina to their first World Cup crown since Diego Maradona inspired the South Americans to the title in Mexico in 1986.
On Tuesday, Messi produced flashes of genius at crucial moments to help Argentina to a convincing 3-0 victory over Croatia in the semi-finals in what was arguably the team’s best performance of the finals so far.
Messi opened the scoring from the penalty spot and Manchester City forward Julian Alvarez doubled Argentina’s lead shortly before half-time after bursting through the middle, aided by two fortunate bounces.
Messi then produced a moment of magic in the 69th minute to set up Alvarez for his second, which killed the game and set up the 35-year-old for another shot at history after he suffered a bitter defeat to Germany in the 2014 final.
Messi later confirmed that he expects Sunday’s final to be his last appearance at a World Cup.
“Being able to achieve this, being able to finish my journey in the World Cups by playing my last game in a final, is something very exciting,” the Argentine captain said.