Morocco 1 – Portugal 0
Ronaldo’s dreams of a World Cup final, let alone a championship, came crashing down against this year’s Cinderella team. Morocco scored late in the first half when their star Yousef En-Nesri out-jumped his defender and Portugal’s keeper Diogo Costa to head a ball first into the ground and then into the back of the net. Watching from the bench, Ronaldo could only gasp in amazement at the Moroccan goal. In the dying moments of the half, Portugal were a bit unlucky and hit the crossbar.
Both teams had excellent chances off the break. Ronaldo finally entered the game (along with Joao Cancelo) in the 50th minute and Portugal began to dominate while Morocco looked simply to survive. In the 58th minute, Goncalo Ramos, the star of the 6-1 trashing against Switzerland found himself unmarked in the box but could only manage to head the ball wide of the goal. Minutes later Bruno Fernandez barely hit a powerful shot over the crossbar.
In the 74th, Morocco used their lightning quick counter to get a 3-2 advantage in the box but Zedirah couldn’t get it past the last Portuguese defender to a wide open teammate on the right. In the 82nd minute, Ronaldo laid the ball back off perfectly to Joao Felix but his shot was saved spectacularly by Bounou. Early in stoppage a Ronaldo received a long pass and struck it first time forcing another stop by Bounou.
And with that last attempt, Portugal’s chances ended and Morocco became the only African team ever to reach the Final Four.
France 2 – England 1
This was the only match to feature two heavyweights. Which is interesting since England hasn’t won the World Cup in 56 years, or any other major trophies for that matter. They are highly regarded only because the domestic league in England is so good and features so many world class players. By extension, the English players are also good and the team is always competitive, even if they currently have the longest drought of any of the big teams in the world.
France, on the other hand, are the reigning champions and are looking to easily be the betting favorites to repeat. No Benzema, no Pogba, no Kante. No probleme. Such is the depth of this squad that even hard core fans of the sport would be hard pressed to recognize France’s goal scorer at minute 17, a young kid named Aurelien Tchouameni, who took an innocent looking pass a good 10 meters from the top of the box, and unleashed a wickedly powerful shot with his instep that beat Jordan Pickford at the far post.
At the start of the second half, Saka danced around the top of the box before being fouled, drawing a penalty. Harry Kane, who else (more on this later), lined up and rifled a shot past his teammate Lloris for the equalizer. Kane fired hard to his left as Lloris guessed wrong and went the other way.
Both teams had numerous chances afterwards. The tie almost didn’t last more than a minute as Raviot latched on to an errant ball and unleashed a hard shot that Pickford had to save at full stretch. But the English persisted with Saka forcing another Lloris save at 59’ and Harry McGuire heading the ball just past the post at 69’. Pickford then saved a point blank header from Giroud 5 minutes later. Giroud, however, would not miss again in the 78th minute, heading in a cross from Griezman just pass Pickford. The ball grazed off of McGuire’s shoulder, forcing the ball away from Pickford enough to prevent him from making the save.
But as in every highly competitive, back and forth game, it came down to a one single moment that would prove key to either winning or losing. In the 80th minute, a long ball was destined into the box for Declan Rice. France’s Teo Hernandez simply bulldozed Rice over. The decision, which was given only after a consultation with the VAR, was pretty obvious.
The next decision, which may have seemed obvious to everyone, was to have Harry Kane take the PK. This is where I gasped in horror. Kane, after all, had just scored his 53rd goal for England just a half hour before. But as I looked at Kane and Lloris two thoughts became evident: a) having the same player take two PKs in one game is always risky, and b) Lloris and Kane are both teammates at Tottenham. Who else but Lloris would have the edge here ?
It’s one thing to study a rival through film, analyze their tendencies, perform an analysis based on shot locations and to use all that data as the basis for making an educated guess. As a goalkeeper in the modern age, you decide where to dive by crunching the numbers right ?
It’s quite another to observe these patterns on the training ground, to be as intimate with a teammate’s tendencies through daily observation. If anything Lloris knows Kane simply through osmosis. Kane, on the other hand, had just scored one and had to be thinking that he couldn’t put it in the same spot, that he had to do something different, especially since Lloris knows him intimately just as Kane knows Lloris.
As a general opinion, I firmly believe that Harry Kane is one of the best three top penalty kickers in the world. If the existence of the human race were dependent on a kick from the spot, I would not hesitate to pick this man to save us from the aliens. But I would not have picked him in this particular situation, at this particular time. I would have opted for anyone else. As the PK unfolded, Kane did not appear nervous, he did not hint any discomfort. When he took aim it was obvious he was trying to kick it as hard as possible, almost thinking that even if Lloris guessed it, he wouldn’t be able to stop it. The resulting kick skied into the stands, and with it, England’s chances of bringing the Cup home.