Not many would have predicted Morocco to reach the semifinals of the World Cup before the start of the tournament. However, the Atlas Lions defied the odds and became the first African team to qualify for the semifinals in the tournament’s history.
In terms of quality, France has world-class players in almost every position. Such is France’s squad depth, that even without players like Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, the Les Bleus look like the favourites to lift the trophy for the second successive season.
On paper, Morocco doesn’t come close to the star power that France has, but the Atlas Lions have shown how far determination and aggression can take someone.
It has beaten teams like Belgium, Spain and Portugal on its path to reaching the semifinal, and will be full of belief against France.
Here are three key battles that can be expected in the match.
Achraf Hakimi vs Kylian Mbappe
After France confirmed its semifinal clash against Morocco, Achraf Hakimi tweeted to Kylian Mbappe, “See you soon, my friend.” While that was a friendly gesture from Hakimi to his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Mbappe, their battle on Thursday will be anything but that.
Hakimi plays as a right-back for Morocco, while Mbappe primarily operates from France’s left flank. That means the PSG teammates will be in direct battles throughout the semifinal match. This will undoubtedly be the match’s most mouthwatering battle.
Hakimi and Mbappe play for the same club so there will be parts of their game that will be familiar to both players.
Apart from his defensive capabilities, Hakimi is very effective with his overlapping runs and when he joins the attack. He has made 19 tackles till now, out of which he has won 13. If Hakimi loses the ball, he tends to work hard to get it back. He has made 30 recoveries till now.
Hakimi is a pacy full-back, but he will be tested to his limits against Mbappe. Known for his blistering speed, once Mbappe gets on the wrong side of defenders, it is tough to stop him. Both Hakimi and Mbappe have touched speeds over 35 km/ph, so it will be interesting to see who wins the pace battle.
Mbappe is a complete player - apart from his five goals, he has three assists. He has also created nine chances from open play.
Stats aside, a matchday scenario is very different from numerical analysis, and it will be interesting to see who wins the battle.
Sofyan Amrabat vs Antoine Griezmann
Antoine Griezmann’s and Sofyan Amrabat is a midfield battle worth watching out for.
Griezmann bagged two assists in France’s 2-1 win over England, which took his assist-tally to 28 for his country. With this, he broke Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane’s joint-record (26) to become the player, to have the most number of assists for France.
Despite having a bland club season, Griezmann has been immense for France in this World Cup. His vision has been crucial for France’s forward line. It was his cross that led to Olivier Giroud scoring the winning goal against England. Griezmann has an 85% pass accuracy, which is impressive, to say the least.
Amrabat has been a crucial player for the Atlas Lions in the middle of the park. A no-nonsense player who is quick to anticipate danger, Amrabat was a major reason why Morocco held on to a clean sheet against Portugal. A hard tackler, he will surely be a hindrance for Griezmann, who might not be able to enjoy his free role in midfield.
It is a big ask, but Amrabat neutralises Griezmann, a major chunk of France’s supply lines will be cut. Amrabat has made an astounding 41 recoveries till now, which is statistical proof of his tackling efficiency and his solidity in midfield.
Sofiane Boufal vs Jules Kounde
Sofiane Boufal has been one of the most exciting players to watch in this high-spirited Moroccan team, and it will be interesting to see how Jules Kounde stops the skilful winger in the semifinal.
Boufal neither has a goal nor an assist till in the World Cup, but his flair and skill on the ball bring that extra dimension to the Atlas Lions’ attack. Quick with his feet, Boufal possesses the ability to take on defenders and beat them.
Kounde, who is primarily playing as a right-back for France, will be deployed to deal with the attacking threat of Boufal. Kounde has pace, so matching Boufal’s speed would not be an issue. Boufal will need to depend on his close control when facing Kounde.
Kounde has made 14 recoveries till now, which is a decent defensive stat. If Kounde goes up to join the attack, he will need to be wary with his tracking back, otherwise, Boufal will have a clear run down the left flank.
It remains to be seen how the battle between the winger and the full-back pans out in the semifinal.