AL KHOR, Qatar — It took a twist of fate for Theo Hernandez to get onto the field at this World Cup, and a twist of his torso to send France speeding back into the final.
If not for an injury to his brother Lucas in France’s opening game of the tournament 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 strike the critical first goal of a tense and entertaining semifinal after just five minutes.
AC Milan doesn’t hire marginal talents, and France head coach Didier Deschamps doesn’t select them. Even so, while Hernandez is an outstanding player, it is also fair to suggest he might be the least technically gifted member of the team’s starting lineup. That’s not a slight on him, it’s a reflection of how much pure ability courses through the French squad.
Antoine Griezmann’s run found space when defender Jawad El Yamiq failed to intercept, before a low cross found Kylian Mbappé, who set up 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, raising his foot to hairline level and smacking the ball into the only gap left by Morocco goalkeeper Bono.
At the other end of the night, with 11 minutes remaining and Morocco pressing, some Mbappé trickery in the box set up Randal Kolo Muani, who had been introduced as a sub just a minute earlier.
The 2-0 scoreline set up a blockbuster of a final, pitting the most complete team in international soccer against its greatest player. Deschamps’ France won it all four years ago in Russia and rarely looked troubled in the knockout phase.
Against Lionel Messi and Argentina (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), Les Bleus will have a chance to become the first champion to repeat since Pelé’s Brazil in 1962.
Yet the margin might also have been slightly unkind to Morocco, which brought so much energy and entertainment to this event while becoming the first African team to ever reach a semifinal.
When Hernandez scored the fastest World Cup semifinal goal since 1958, it was the first time Walid Regragui’s Morocco had trailed in the tournament.
Yet any supposition that conceding so early would demoralize the North African team would prove to be false.
Before long, they had a genuine foothold in the game, despite the deficit. Azzedine Ounahi’s strong low drive from outside the area forced Hugo Lloris into a fine save, and the Tottenham goalkeeper was called into action again to push away an acrobatic overhead 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 strong effort, and Mbappé was causing his usual level of threat, but France had to be content with — and maybe grateful for — holding onto its slim advantage at the interval.
Morocco had no choice but to go after it in the second half. What a dream run it was, beating Spain on penalty kicks and Portugal — including sub Cristiano Ronaldo — in regulation in the quarters. If not for too many spurned half-chances, and with some more composure in the area, this might have gone differently.
Hakim Ziyech created trouble with his ingenuity, but neither Youssef En-Nesyri nor Yahya Attiat-Allah could take advantage.
France had a momentary scare as Mbappé went down in distress midway through the second half, then again when the rapid forward got stepped on by a defender, prompting a change of cleats but no major damage.
The new shoes clearly agreed with him. As more and more space opened, a twinkle-toed run in the box put the game out of reach. Mbappé’s effort bounced loose and Kolo Muani scored at the back post, to the dismay of Morocco’s red-clad band of vociferous supporters.
France has not lost a knockout game at the World Cup since its 2014 quarterfinal defeat to Germany. There were few signs here of that looking likely to change, though Messi and company will presumably have plenty to say about that Sunday.