Doha: Defending world champions and title favourites France face African history-makers Morocco on Wednesday in what is sure to be a high-octane World Cup semi-final at the Al Bayt stadium.
France, who defeated England on Saturday, are looking to become the first team in 60 years to retain the trophy but they can expect fierce resistance from the surprise package of the tournament.
Morocco’s giant-killing run to the last four, the first time an African nation has made it this far, has electrified fans at home and delighted the Moroccan diaspora in Europe and beyond.
The Atlas Lions will again be roared on by thousands of passionate supporters in the stadium on the desert outskirts of Doha and can count on local Qatari support too as the first Arab team ever to make it to the last four.
“It’s not over yet, our ambition is to go to the final,” former Morocco international Aziz Bouderbala, part of the 1986 World Cup team that reached the last 16, told AFP.
“We are living a historic moment. We are among the four best teams in the world but it’s fabulous, it’s delirium.”
The game will have added spice given France was Morocco’s colonial power and hundreds of thousands of people with Moroccan roots live and work in the country.
Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who was born near Paris and spent most of his playing career in the French league, believes his team have become the neutral’s favourite.
“We’ve become the team people feel positive towards at this World Cup,” said Regragui.
“We’re showing the world what’s possible with less talent, less quality, less money, and what you can achieve with desire, hard work and belief.”
France will have fewer fans in the stadium but will be supported in person by President Emmanuel Macron.
On paper Didier Deschamps’ team, packed with talent and experience, should progress with some comfort.
But if the France coach, a World Cup winner as a player in 1998, is worried about complacency undoing his team, he need only remind his players how Morocco got to this stage.
In the round of 16, playing aggressive, hard-running football, Regragui’s team knocked out 2010 winners Spain on penalties before eliminating highly rated Portugal, leaving Cristiano Ronaldo in tears.
Morocco had earlier served notice of their intent by topping Group F, beating Belgium and Canada and drawing with 2018 runners-up Croatia.
The have only conceded one goal in the entire competition but it will require another night of heroic defending if they are to keep out a potent France attack.
Kylian Mbappe, the tournament’s top scorer with five goals, attacks from the left while Olivier Giroud, level with Lionel Messi on four goals, occupies the traditional centre-forward role.
Antoine Griezmann has been outstanding in a deeper, creative role.
France defeated Poland and England in their two knockout games and pre-tournament concerns about their injury losses - Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema - have dissipated.
But the French will also have to be alert themselves to Morocco’s swift counter-attacks, with Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech on the right flank and Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri looking to exploit weaknesses in Deschamps’ back line.
Morocco’s willingness to run with the ball and then harry to retrieve should make for a high-energy game.
“Obviously we know they are having an exceptional World Cup and have beaten some big nations, so it is a match we will be taking seriously,” said France right-back Jules Kounde.
“They are no longer a surprise package, they deserve to be here. We hope to make things difficult for them and qualify.”