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Ken Early: Superstars Mbappé and Messi will align as magic finally runs out for Morocco

Injuries caught up with the brave African side - the worry is that a virus might now have a similar effect on France

It’s the downside of World Cup upsets. Everyone loves when a small team comes along and knocks out a series of bigger teams with superhuman performances. If only the players really were superhumans. After a few attritional rounds, the small team’s overworked first XI are mostly exhausted or injured. In the end their defeat is as anticlimactic as it is inevitable.

One of the worst things in football is when injured players miss the very biggest games. Another one of the worst things is when they don’t. The problem is that most football injuries fall in the grey area between “completely fine” and “totally incapacitated”. You can’t say how serious an injury really is without first checking the importance of the upcoming match. An injury which would certainly rule a player out of an international friendly will be willed out of existence for a World Cup semi-final.

So the drama of the injured player who should never have been on the pitch is a big-game affair. Even the best coaches cannot resist the temptation of playing unfit stars in the biggest games.

Jurgen Klopp played Thiago in the last Champions League final despite the player complaining of an injury in the warm-up. Mauricio Pochettino started Harry Kane in the 2019 final, even though it was his first game for nearly two months. Diego Simeone played Diego Costa in the first seven minutes of the 2014 final before he had to limp off with the hamstring injury everyone already knew he had. The most infamous World Cup example must be Brazil’s Mario Zagallo (eventually) picking Ronaldo to start the 1998 final (after leaving him out on the first version of the teamsheet), despite the player suffering an unexplained seizure before the game.

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France were the beneficiaries that last time, as they were here at Al-Bayt Stadium, when Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui looked at the quality of options on his bench and decided to take refuge in magical thinking.

Morocco defenders Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saiss, and Noussair Mazraoui were all expected to miss this match through injury, but all three were named in the starting XI to face France. Regragui was putting his faith in mind over matter.

Aguerd broke down in the warm-up. Saiss lasted 20 minutes before calling to come off shortly after an incident in which a ball had bounced over his head to let Olivier Giroud in on goal. Mazraoui made it to half-time before admitting defeat.

By then Morocco were already losing 1-0: a situation they had not faced at half-time in any previous match. Only Moroccan players had been able to score past Bono in Qatar. He hadn’t conceded even in penalty shootouts. After five minutes the spell preserving his goal had been broken, and with it went Morocco’s hopes of winning the World Cup.

The moment when Saiss was caught out by a bouncing ball happened 10 minutes later and Regragui immediately told Selim Amallah to get ready to go on. Too late, it was time to accept reality and try to deal with it. You can understand the coach being reluctant to break the hearts of players who have carried him to his highest point. Remember how reluctant Mick McCarthy was to drop the obviously injured Jason McAteer for Ireland’s 2002 World Cup opener against Cameroon. How could he do that to the man who had got him there?

But Morocco were better with players who could move. Regragui will always wonder whether it might have been different if he had only picked fit players from the beginning.

At the end the Moroccan players fell to the ground and wept. In time their sadness will give way to lasting pride. Their success in eliminating Belgium, Portugal and Spain to reach the semi-finals has been claimed in Qatar for “the Arab world”, though Regragui has been more eager to talk about what it means for Africa. The success belongs above all to the coach, his players, and the millions of Moroccans who cheered them on in Qatar, at home, and in the Moroccan diaspora around the world.

The 2022 World Cup will therefore be won by a team that has already won two World Cups. It’s a repeat of the second-round match in Kazan in 2018, when France beat Argentina 4-3 in a match that was not as close as the scoreline made it sound. Kylian Mbappé tore Argentina to pieces that day, making them look like a punch-drunk boxer who should have retired a couple of fights ago, but Lionel Scaloni’s Argentina are faster, more aggressive and more confident.

The final also pits the two biggest stars at Qatar’s PSG against each other. Mbappé and Lionel Messi lead the World Cup scoring charts with five each. Can Messi produce another miracle to take Argentina all the way? Or does Mbappé, the heir apparent, retire him with a defeat? From a sports marketing point of view this has worked out rather well for Qatar.

Assuming, that is, the most important players are fit and available. France had their own injury concerns with Adrien Rabiot and reportedly Dayot Upamecano missing the match with flu. This virus could be a problem for France if it cuts the same sort of swathe through their squad as it has through the press corps.

It’s possible to imagine a situation where Didier Deschamps finds himself in the position of Regragui tonight, having to decide between a flu-stricken Kylian Mbappé or a fit Randal Kolo Muani. Surely a mere virus could never cause that much trouble.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer