France face World Cup history-makers Morocco in the World Cup semifinals on Wednesday, with Lionel Messi’s Argentina lying in wait after another dazzling performance from the diminutive magician.
The Copa America champions swept aside 2018 World Cup finalists Croatia 3-0 on Tuesday to give the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner the chance to crown his career in style.
Defending champions 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’ France are heavy favourites to win at the Al Bayt Stadium but face a team that has conceded just once in their extraordinary run to the semifinals.
France captain Hugo Lloris is desperate to avoid the whiff of complacency for a team that has become used to competing at the sharp end of tournaments.
“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 has retained the World Cup since Pele’s Brazil side performed the feat in 1962.
The world champions are unlikely to have it all their own way against a tough Morocco team.
They topped a group containing Croatia and Belgium before beating Spain on penalties and then dumping Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal out of the tournament.
Morocco are the first African side and the first Arab nation to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.
The 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 has 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 semifinals and some see that as enough, I don’t agree,” said Regragui.
“If you get to the semifinals 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.
On Tuesday, Messi converted a penalty in the first half against Croatia to pull level with France hotshot Kylian Mbappe in the leading scorer’s race on five goals.
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.
“Argentina are, once again, in the World Cup final. Enjoy it!” said the Argentine great.
“We’ve been through tough situations, other very good ones. Today we’re experiencing something spectacular.”