France remained on course to become the first team in 60 years to defend a world championship crown when they overcame a dogged Morocco side 2-0 in the second semi final of the 2022 World Cup on Wednesday (14 December).
Egged on by boisterous support and the collective will of a fearsome group of footballers, Morocco had made history by becoming the first African and Arab team to make a World Cup semi-final.
But getting past the might of France, severely depleted by injuries but probably still the team to beat in this competition, was a step too far for the Atlas Lions.
The blows from a series of titanic tussles also wore heavy on Walid Regragui's men. Center-half Nayef Aguerd missed out with an injury just before kick-off, while inspirational captain and his partner Romain Saiss limped off despite starting the game.
Regragui employed a five-man backline to tackle France's attacking prowess. But it did not work out with Morocco looking vulnerable for the first time in the tournament.
The French went ahead as early as the 5th minute. Raphael Varane played a through ball that Jawad El Yamiq misread. He slid in for the ball only to be beaten to it by Antoine Griezmann on the right.
His low cross bounced around to reach left-back Theo Hernandez, who controlled his shot beautifully as the ball rose above his shoulder to guide it into the net.
Morocco had conceded a goal scored by an opponent player for the first time in the tournament, and fallen behind for the first time as well.
But their characteristic resilience shone through again, this time as they chased an equalizer. Azzedine Ounahi tested Hugo Lloris with a curler from outside the box that the 'keeper had to palm away.
Meanwhile, France nearly scored through Olivier Giroud, who turned Saiss on a through ball but shaved the post with his shot (17'). He also shot wide while facing an empty goal moments later.
Morocco, meanwhile, ended the first half strongly, with a brilliant acrobatic effort from El Yamiq in the dying moments nearly bringing parity. His bicycle kick was just about touched on to the post by Lloris.
France threatened to double the lead through some fine runs down the left by Mbappe. But Morocco began looking the more likely to score as the half wore on.
First, Soufian Boyfal's cross from the right was just about cleared by Varane, but the ball fell to substitute Attiyat-Allah, who mishit his shot. Seconds later, the left-back himself crossed dangerously, but Ibrahima Konate stretched out to stave off the danger in heroic fashion (54').
In an absorbing back-and-forth game, Marcus Thuram then headed wide in the 71st minute from close from a fine Griezmann free-kick.
Morocco again had a chance to level the game in the 76th after Aurelien Tchouameni was dispossessed by some great pressing and the ball was taken over by Hamdallah. He ran into the box but delayed his shot and it was eventually cleared (76').
But the game was killed off as a contest when France's killer instinct came to the fore once again in the tournament.
After a great passing move that saw Mbappe pass wide to the left to Thuram, the maestro himself danced his way into the box while surrounded by defenders. His shot was half-blocked and the ball rolled to Randal Kolo Muani, who rolled the ball into the net with his first touch of the game.
Morocco did have a chance to pull one back in stoppage time after a low cross from the left, but France defender Kounde stopped it near the line.
There were tears as well as profound love for their heroes from the Moroccan fans at the end of the whistle after a historic campaign.
Meanwhile, France have set up a classic World Cup final against Argentina on Sunday. The magical Mbappe vs the grand wizard Messi, and two talented supporting casts are surely going to provide a delectable climax to a fine tournament.
Here are the player ratings from an absorbing last-four clash.
Hugo Lloris- 7/10
After impressing against England, Lloris was once again at his sublime shot-stopping best in this game for France.
Jules Kounde- 6.5/10
Made some great clearances and interceptions at right-back. Three tackles and two interceptions all came at crucial times. But was overrun once or twice on the right.
Raphael Varane- 7/10
Brought all his experience to the fore at vital moments to keep the World Champions in the game.
Ibrahima Konate- 8/10
It's never easy to get drafted into the first-team at such a high-profile game. But the Liverpool man was included in the first XI by the brilliant France manager Didier Deschamps after Dayot Upamecano pulled out with a cold.
And Konate was superb for France. His crucial clearance has already been spoken about. He made five interceptions, two tackles and four blocks on a night of supreme awareness.
Theo Hernandez- 7/10
Was almost the villain of the piece for France against England when he conceded a needless penalty. But made amends tonight with a fine goal and a generally assured performance.
Youssouf Fofana- 6.5/10
Fofana was another forced new entrant into the double pivot in midfield and acquitted himself well. Made 81 per cent of his passes while also breaking up play with four tackles.
Aurelien Tchouameni 6.5/10
Had a generally fine game at defensive midfield, transitioning play with quick passing, but was caught out on possession late in the game in a moment that could have proved costly.
Antoine Griezmann- 8/10
Possibly France's best player of the tournament, Griezmann was again brilliant on the night. Played a huge role in the first goal, passed and crossed the ball with panache and helped out the defense with precision throughout.
Kylian Mbappe- 7/10
We have entered the age of Mbappe and the generational superstar is lighting up grounds wherever he plays. His pace, skill and power were too much to handle even for the superb Moroccan rearguard on the night. Played a part in both goals, but would be disappointed with only a 75 per cent pass completion rate.
Ousmane Dembele- 5.5/10
Had a very average outing by his standards and failed to influence the game despite his obvious qualities down the flank.
Olivier Giroud- 6/10
It did not happen for Olivier Giroud either as he had one shot kiss the post while shooting wide minutes later with the goal gaping.
Marcus Thuram- 7/10
Looked dangerous down the left after coming on and played a big part in the second goal.
Randal Kolo Muani- 7/10
Had just six touches of the ball, but one of them was the crucial second goal that came after only 44 seconds of him coming on. It made him the holder of the fastest goal scored by a sub in World Cup knockouts.
Yassine Bounou- 6/10
Had a brilliant World Cup, but was off-color in the semi-final. Should have rushed out for Hernandez's goal.
In a battle of the ages with clubmate Mbappe, the effervescent right-back sometimes held his own, but was sometimes beaten by the Frenchman. Made four tackles.
Jawad El Yamiq- 6.5/10
Was at fault for the first goal, but made amends later. His audacious attempt nearly brought about the equalizer.
Romain Saiss- 5.5/10
The inspirational captain started with a niggle but went off as early as the 21st minute, unable to carry on.
Achraf Dari- 6.5/10
Was pugnacious at center-back but overstepped the line on a few occasions and was also dribbled past twice.
Noussair Mazraoui- 6/10
The Bayern Munich left-back was one of the casualities on the night, taken off at half-time. Did not convince defensively for the first goal but was otherwise steady. Made 83 per cent of his passes and ventured forward commendably on a few occasions.
Hakim Ziyech- 6/10
The quality right-winger showed moments of magic against France while making 85 per cent of his passes, but often made the wrong pass at important moments.
Azzedine Ounahi- 7/10
Was one of Morocco's best players on the night. Made three successful dribbles and 88 per cent of his passes, while taking one great shot on goal.
Sofyan Amrabat- 6.5/10
One of the players of the tournament, the defensive midfielder had a poor first half, misplacing his passes, but found his mojo in the second; his crunching tackle on Mbappe proving the point.
Soufiane Boufal- 6.5/10
Made some dangerous crosses into the box but only made 67 per cent of his passes.
Youssef En-Nesyri- 5/10
The hero against Portugal had a horror night. Had just three touches of the ball and looked lost from the game all the time.
Yahia Attiyat Allah- 6/10
The substitute left-back ventured forward menancingly and one his crosses was on the mark, but also mishit his shot once when unmarked.
Selim Amallah- 6/10
Tried his best but his vigor did not match his output when passing it forward. He was better defensively, making three tackles.
Abderrazak Hamdallah- 5.5/10
Wasted a great chance to draw his team level after coming on, dithering on the ball.
Zakaria Aboukhlal- 6/10
Made 75 per cent of his passes, but did not influence the game in an attacking sense as much as he would have liked.
Made a dazzling run down the left flank and then crossed in late in the game. But the eventual shot was cleared off the line by Konate.