|A gutted Harry Kane after missing his second penalty in the match against France on Saturday. — AFP/VNA Photo|
HÀ NỘI — Two of this season's biggest Premier League stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Kane, have exited the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
But in spite of their exit, this World Cup gave rise to a historical performance from another underdog team in Morocco.
The Atlas Lions' miracle run continued with a 1-0 win against Portugal on Saturday. They became the first African team, and the first Arab team, to make a World Cup semifinals.
Fernando Santos made just one replacement in the lineup after Portugal's 6-1 thrashing of Switzerland on Tuesday. Wolverhampton Wanderers' Ruben Neves started in place of William Carvalho, while Ronaldo was named on the bench once again in favour of Goncalo Ramos, who scored a hat-trick against the Swiss.
Seventy-four per cent of possession and 663 passes were made by Portugal on the day, but they still fell to the same fate as their Iberian neighbours, Spain: goalless.
Joao Felix and Goncalo Ramos pressured Yassine Bounou with early chances, but the Sevilla keeper denied the Portuguese attackers time and time again.
Luck was not on Portugal's side, as Bruno Fernandes' long-range shot in the 44th minute hit the crossbar.
Fernandes and co. were even furious that some refereeing decisions did not go their way. In the 45th minute, Raphael Guerreiro was pulled by Achraf Hakimi and fell inside the box. Argentinian referee Facundo Tello did not give the penalty, nor consult VAR.
Morocco was not only strong in defence, but also robust in reclaiming possession and transitioning to attack. Sofyan Amrabat could be one of the transfer market's hottest names after this tournament, appearing all over the field with enormous energy, creating opportunities for his teammates to counter.
From such counterattacks, Yahia Attiyat Allah delivered a cross from the left wing, which forced Diogo Costa to make a mistake, allowing Youssef En-Nesyri to overpower both Costa and Ruben Dias, heading the ball into an empty net.
No opposing player has ever scored against Morocco since June 13, and the only goal they conceded in that span of nine matches is an own goal by Nayef Aguerd.
In the second half, Ronaldo was brought on, as well as Man City's Joao Cancelo to bolster Portugal's attack. Chances did come for CR7, but on a day that Yassine Bounou played tremendously well, Portugal could not even find an equaliser, and Ronaldo was reduced to tears heading to the tunnel.
The Moroccans across the Al Thumama Stadium, as well as in Rabat and Casablanca also cried tears, but tears of joy as their country made continental history, in progressing to their first semi-final.
Later, England faced France in a clash that many had predicted when the group draw was made.
90 minutes of world-class football with multiple Champions League-winning superstars did not disappoint spectators at the Al Bayt Stadium. A different, braver England went all in against the defending champions, and even at times controlling and dominating the game.
Les Bleus, despite only having 43 per cent in possession, and eight shots on goal made better use of their chances than the Three Lions. Despite star attacker Kylian Mbappe being tightly marked, the quality of France's other individuals still shone when needed.
Aurélien Tchouameni was one of them. Tipped as the man to fill Paul Pogba's void, Tchouameni recreated one of Pogba's trademark strikes, hitting the ball from 20 metres and beating Jordan Pickford in the 17th minute.
England spent two years studying France, according to Gareth Southgate, but it seemed that a different Les Blues came to play.
The Three Lions roared, but Kane couldn't beat Tottenham teammate Hugo Lloris despite his best efforts in the first half.
In the second half, England created enormous pressure on the French fullbacks. From one such play, Bukayo Saka drew a foul from Tchouameni inside the penalty area and the referee finally gave England a penalty, after denying one earlier in the first half.
From the spot, Kane hammered in the penalty, equalling the score, and equalling Wayne Rooney's goalscoring record for England with 53 goals.
France awakened and created a beautiful attacking game with England. The deadlock was again broken in the 78th minute when Olivier Giroud headed into Pickford's net.
Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling were subbed in by Southgate, and Mount immediately made an impact, getting England a penalty.
From the spot, Harry Kane, England's captain, had a golden chance to equalise for his team who was down 2-1 against the current world champions. But like Steph Houghton who was in that same scenario just three years ago in the Women's World Cup, Kane skyrocketed the ball over the bar.
Even with eight minutes left, England still cannot find the equaliser, and lengthen the years of hurt to at least 60.
France on the other hand have a chance of becoming the first back-to-back champions since Brazil in 1962. Their first task? Overcoming their Francophonie brethren in Morocco. — VNS