The 2022 World Cup now has its two finalists. In a sensational second semi-final, France defeated Morocco 2-0, with the dull scoreline failing to do justice to the action unfolding down the pitch. With so much happening, ESPN India is trying to pick out the one moment that defined the action of the day.
For Day 20, it’s a moment that plays out in two parts separated by less than three minutes: Abderrazak Hamdallah’s nervous hesitation and Kylian Mbappe’s unnerving certainty.
It starts one second before the 75th minute of the game. France leads Morocco to zero with a goal, but it is the narrowest margin. Morocco has been hammering the French since that early goal. At several points it took a stretch from Raphael Varane, a tackle from Ibrahima Konate, more than one save from Hugo Lloris, the annoyingly constant presence of Antoine Griezmann and a strong metal post to keep the score at 1-0.
It is on this point that Selim Amallah puts enormous pressure on Aurelien Tchouameni. As the Real Madrid midfielder turns around, Abderrazak Hamdallah lunges in and takes over the ball. With his head down, he heads full speed towards the French box. Hamdallah came on in the 66th minute and made a big difference with his almost offensive directness. A prolific striker throughout his career, he was once named the world’s top scorer (for the 2019 calendar year) when he scored 57 goals for Al Nassr, three more than Robert Lewandowski, seven more than Lionel Messi. So this is a man who knows the way to the goal.
Hamdallah slows down as he nears the edge of the box, before a sudden change of direction sends a furiously retreating Varane into the air. Konate and Jules Kounde follow in his wake. As he slides past Varane, the French goal suddenly opens. Despite all the domination and creating chances in the last 75 minutes, Morocco never really had a good view of Llori’s goal. Hamdallah has it now.
He flexes his left foot and… hesitates. Kounde and Konate catch up. However, Hamdallah still has the upper hand and shifts it to the left again. Another clean line of sight. Left leg tense again. Again hesitation. By the time he tries to poke it with his right hand, the door has slammed shut.
Opportunity? What chance? Didier Deschamps’ men have firmly locked the front door. That tight line of sight to Lloris’ goal? Another figment of the Moroccan imagination.
France still 1. Morocco still 0.
Exactly two minutes and thirty-one seconds after losing the ball to Hamdallah, Tchouameni runs on a misplaced pass from Jawad El Yamiq. A quick spin and a deft punch take Youssouf Fofana away. He, in turn, drives into the Moroccan half and stops Azzedine Ounahi before passing this square to his left.
True, standing still, is Kylian Mbappé.
Mbappé has threatened to enter Morocco throughout the match. Even when he’s not doing anything, you can feel the fear in the air. It is laced with the threat of what he is could to do. The ferocity of his acceleration has scorched Morocco on a few occasions, but his big mate Achraf Hakimi and that man-who-never-stops-running Sofyan Amrabat have largely kept him in check; by dirty means and honestly. Here he gets the ball from Fofana with a bit of daring imagination. His first touch sends it rolling over his foot, his body spinning at blinding speed. Hakimi, who has come rushing up to deploy a reducer, is sent to the wrong fire.
On his next touch, Mbappé slid the ball onto Marcus Thuram. Lillian’s eldest son hangs on to it, waiting and waiting for the Moroccan box to be a sea of red before playing it back to Mbappé on the outskirts.
As the ball rolls towards him, Mbappe plants his left leg before letting the ball roll past him. That one small move has made the excellent Amrabat and for the first time in this tournament he is powerless. With his hands in the air, he can only stand and watch as Mbappé blasts past, then right and left, holding back Achraf Dari and Hakimi and Abdessamad Ezzalzouli before firing a shot on target. It deflects from a fifth Moroccan in Mbappé’s path, El Yamiq, and falls at the feet of Randal Kolo Muani.
A tap from two meters and Kolo Muani has scored his very first international goal.
France 2 now. Morocco still 0.
Hamdallah had the chance to shoot twice. Both times he hesitated, didn’t trust his left foot, didn’t believe in his abilities, tried to minimize the risk and close the distance between him and the target. David had loaded and stretched the sling, but it didn’t let go when he came face to face with Goliath. If he had hit it the first time, or even the second time… If he had scored… the game would have been turned. Morocco would have had all the momentum. If it wasn’t regular time, they would have had confidence and Bono’s smile by their side in extra time and a possible shootout.
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On the other hand, Mbappé had no real shot on target. There had been no gap in most eyes let alone a clear view of the target. The shot he took came from a minimal backlift, executed before anyone around him even knew what was going on. No hesitation in taking the risk. Full faith in his pure abilities.
The difference was big.
Abderrazak Hamdallah hesitated. Kylian Mbappe did not. In top sport where the margins are so small that they are invisible, that is sometimes all that is needed to decide who will reach a World Cup final and who will not.