FOX Sports Insider
AL KHOR, Qatar – It took a twist of fate for Theo Hernandez to step onto the pitch at this World Cup, and a twist of his torso to send France into the final.
If not for his brother Lucas’ injury in France’s tournament opener against Australia, Hernandez would likely have been stuck on the bench at Al Bayt Stadium on Wednesday against Morocco. Instead, he was in position to score the critical first goal of a tense and entertaining semi-final after just five minutes.
Theo Hernandez opens the scoring
Theo Hernandez’s twisting shot in the fifth minute gave France early control of the semi-final against Morocco.
AC Milan does not hire fringe talents and France head coach Didier Deschamps does not select them. Even so, while Hernandez is an outstanding player, it’s also fair to suggest that he might be the least technically gifted member of the team’s starting lineup. It’s not an affront to him, it’s a reflection of the sheer ability of the French team.
Antoine Griezmann’s run found space when defender Jawad El Yamiq failed to intercept, before a low cross found Kylian Mbappé, who placed unmarked left-back Hernandez at the far post .
Hernandez performed a feat of gymnastics that would make a striker proud, tilting his body to the side, lifting his foot to hairline level and kicking the ball into the only space left by Moroccan keeper Bono.
At the other end of the night, with 11 minutes remaining and Morocco pressing, a trickery by Mbappé in the box set up Randal Kolo Muani, who had been introduced as a substitute a minute earlier.
Randal Kolo Muani makes it 2-0
France took a two-goal lead in the 80th minute.
The 2-0 scoreline set up a blockbuster of a final, pitting international football’s most complete team against its greatest player. Deschamps’ France won it all four years ago in Russia and rarely looked troubled in the knockout stage.
Against Lionel Messi and Argentina (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), Blues will have a chance to become the first champion to repeat since Pelé’s Brazil in 1962.
Yet, the margin may also have been a bit nasty for Morocco, who brought so much energy and entertainment to this event while becoming the first African team to reach a semi-final.
When Hernandez scored the fastest goal in a World Cup semi-final since 1958, it was the first time Walid Regragui’s Morocco had trailed in the tournament.
Still, any guess that cashing in so early would demoralize the North African side would prove wrong.
France wins the chance to become the first repeat champion in six decades.
In no time, they had a real foot in the game, despite the deficit. Azzedine Ounahi’s strong low drive from outside the box forced Hugo Lloris into a fine save, and the Tottenham keeper was again called into action to repel an acrobatic kick from El Yamiq to deny what would have been a classic World Cup goal.
Olivier Giroud hit the outside of the post with a powerful effort, and Mbappé provoked his usual level of threat, but France had to be content – and perhaps grateful – to maintain their slim advantage in the interval.
Morocco had no choice but to pursue him in the second half. What a dream race it was, beating Spain on penalties and Portugal – including under Cristiano Ronaldo – in regulation time in the quarter-finals. Without too many rejected half chances and with a little more composure in the field, it could have turned out differently.
Hakim Ziyech created trouble with his ingenuity, but neither Youssef En-Nesyri nor Yahya Attiat-Allah could take advantage of it.
France had a momentary scare when Mbappé fell into distress midway through the second half, then again when the fast striker was trampled by a defender, prompting a change of boots but no major damage.
The new shoes clearly agreed with him. As more and more space opened up, a flickering run into the box knocked the game out of reach. Mbappé’s effort bounced back and Kolo Muani scored at the far post, much to the dismay of Morocco’s raucous band of supporters dressed in red.
France haven’t lost a World Cup knockout game since their quarter-final loss to Germany in 2014. There were few signs here that looked likely to change, although Messi and company probably have a lot to say about this Sunday.
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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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