Harry Kane missed the penalty, Olivier Giroud did not. France goes on. Image: Getty Images
First things first: As the sport of football mourns, take a moment to remember Grant Wahl, a journalist of the highest caliber.
France 2-1 England
It doesn’t feel right to split one of today’s games into Game of the Day and then second because they were both so much fun.
With the shrinking talent gaps between teams at this World Cup and the same in management, I sometimes wonder how any team actually wins the damn thing. We know the next few weeks will be a massive autopsy in the English press on what England did wrong and why they are not coming home again. One wonders what Harry Kane will be going through in the next few months after missing that second penalty that would have leveled the game at 2.
And yet these games are now being decided with such ridiculously thin margins that no matter how loud the tabloids yell and how deep the analysts dig, all they’ll find is, “Sometimes you don’t win.” England might have had the best squad ever and, to be honest, they played a lot better than France today. Their tactics were spot on most of the time. Their numerical advantage in midfield was manifested with both Jordan Henderson and Jude Bellingham pulling wide to combine with Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden. This forced the French midfield duo of Aurélien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot to either follow the wing out and fully expose the center of the field, or allow England to overload widely, which also meant England could keep their full-backs fairly reserved, to protect against Kylian Mbappe and stop Ousmane Dembélé from breaking loose on the counter.
And yet a player like Tchouameni sometimes shoots in from 25 meters. Sometimes a player like Antoine Griezmann, who’s spent most of his night with the fluff in Declan Rice’s pocket, puts in a delicious cross that Olivier Giroud heads against Harry Maguire and it goes in.
Yes, Kane missed his second penalty. You can’t miss opportunities when they come (ask Chrisitan Pulisic). Yes, Saka was probably fouled before France’s first goal. It’s easy to say that England, thanks to their history, always finds a way to amaze themselves, and France, thanks to their history, simply finds a way to win. It feels better to have an actual explanation than to know that sometimes the ball bounces like this and sometimes like that. The latter cannot be fixed.
But that’s the game, that’s sport. France were pretty lazy for most of the game, their defense slapstick and ragged. They seemed to have run out of ideas in attack. Still, two brilliant moments and a cock-up from England and you have your score. It’s a testament to how much any manager or team can control, and no matter how well and thoroughly they do it, there’s still so much left to chance. You can’t plan for the opposing goalkeeper to have a blinder like Hugo Loris (ask Brazil).
Sometimes you just lose. There’s a huge list of teams I could name that have never won anything and you look back and you’re stunned. Argentina or Portugal in the 2000s or Belgium in the 2010s. Italy won the Euros sandwiched between not even qualifying for two World Cups. It doesn’t have to make sense. Sometimes you just lose.
Morocco 1 – 0 Portugal
We officially have our odd team of the tournament, which we suspected was going to happen ahead of the tournament due to their odd placement on the calendar (and of course they knocked out the odd team I was betting on to win because this is how I roll). Morocco becomes the team from Africa to reach a semi-final. And rightly so.
There’s always an urge to deride a team that defends like Morocco for most of a game as a fluke and a 7’s. You could make that argument more easily for Croatia, who needed their goalkeeper to turn their heads to get Brazil into penalties in the first place. While Moroccan Yassine Bounou made a save or two, it’s not as if he was asked to perform satanic rituals to get his team through.
Morocco controlled this game and coach Walid Regragui brought this team together so well it feels like there are no holes. Portugal did, at least in the first half, what Spain wouldn’t do and tried to be more direct, playing more passes over the top of the defense to try to create space between midfield and defence. Portugal helped them a little by not starting their most direct player in Rafael Leao and none of those seeking balls really hit. Morocco remained phaseless and continued to choke the game with their center block and high (similar) defensive line that offered no space. Portugal fielding so many players looking to drift inside didn’t help their cause but Morocco still had to defend themselves.
The lesson of the day is that you can’t miss the bear when you shoot and it helps when you have a striker like Youssef En-Nesyri who can tell gravity to fuck off for a brief second during he cares about something :
From there, Morocco could easily drop deep and challenge Portugal to find a way while still having a massive threat on the counter given how smoothly and quickly they line up moves and move the field forward when they space to have. They even had better chances than Portugal at 1-0.
They also had the biggest pissing moment of the tournament:
It’s amazing that Regragui has only been on the job for a few months. But he has a plan, he got his players to buy in and as the talent gap between teams narrows it can make a big difference at a World Cup. It goes on for Morocco.
goal of the day
Morocco’s goal was significant and will go down in history, but Tchouameni’s goal is the best choice for its sheer quality. Even if Jordan Pickford had normal sized arms, he would flap at this statement:
Toxic is the word.
Did VAR mess something up?
England probably should have gotten a penalty before getting their first penalty as Saka was essentially tackled on the edge of the French box. But otherwise not particularly, despite Portugal’s and Pepe’s hilarious and tearful complaints.
Did Alexi Lalas say something stupid?
He mostly left that to Clint Dempsey, who wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to Cristiano Ronaldo for everything he’d done, which sounds pretty darn awkward and distant considering… you know.
A eulogy of the deceased
England – As a Bears fan, I know when I’m watching a team and a fan base that have garnered attention and noise that far outweigh their achievements. Besides, it’s the team that invented the sport. England and their supporters will not console themselves with just being unlucky again and they will tear themselves apart trying to find something tangible to blame in the hope that after Germany 2024 it will be fixed again can be. And the pressure will only increase, crushing the urgency, and it will continue to feed itself. And the self-flagellation will basically be the story. The thing is, like the Bears, England have rarely been anywhere near the victories that would befit their perceived status. A Euro final, a Super Bowl lately for everyone. England are still well positioned for the future given the ages of Saka, Foden, Bellingham, Rice, Mount, Rice, Phillips and Rashford. But the pressure is mounting, the expectations are elephant-heavy, and it feels like it’s always breaking their backs. They’ll oust Gareth Southgate from the job of manager afterwards, but who can do it better or differently? This is England and they can never settle for waiting for the punches to go their way.
Portugal – Most fans will dine on this for a while:
Ronaldo might be crying at this last World Cup, or that he hasn’t started again, or that he’s about to fade into insignificance by taking Saudi Arabia’s blood money, or a combination of those. He was Portugal for so long but now they are a better team without him. It’s hard to have sympathy for a man who has made even his national team just something that serves him. He has the trophies and medals. He has the goals (he also has freedom from prison, many would say he shouldn’t have). But when Messi leaves there will be sadness and appreciation. At that moment, most just say to Ronaldo: “Fine, fuck off.”