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World Cup: Mbappe vs Hakimi battle dominates headlines but Griezmann could hurt Morocco's final dream

1:24 PM WAT 13/12/2022
Mbappe, Hakimi, Griezmann - France, Morocco World Cup 2022
The media have focused on the battle between the Paris Saint-Germain teammates, but are they overlooking Les Blues’ lesser-sung hero?

How do you stop Kylian Mbappe? It is a question that Graham Arnold, Kasper Hjulmand, Czeslaw Michniewicz and Gareth Southgate have respectively faced for Australia, Denmark, Poland and England at various points at the World Cup.

The Paris Saint-Germain star heads into Wednesday’s semi-final with Morocco atop the scoring charts, having netted five times and set up another two. He leads Lionel Messi and France teammate Olivier Giroud (both on four goals) for goals, and his goal contributions outdo the legendary Argentinean by one.

Yet only Southgate truly passed the Mbappe test in England’s quarter-final encounter with Les Blues, despite losing 2-1 to Didier Deschamps’ side.

Much of the pre-match talk before that meeting focused on the PSG superstar’s confrontation with Kyle Walker, just as Wednesday’s semi-final has emphasised Mbappe’s head-to-head with Achraf Hakimi.

The full-back has been one of the competition’s better players, playing out of his skin at both ends of the pitch in Morocco’s unexpected run to the last four, but faces his trickiest battle yet as the Atlas Lions bid to make Sunday’s decider at the Lusail Stadium.

Hakimi and Mbappe share a close bond in Paris, but those feelings are expected to give way to hostilities when Wednesday night comes along.

Southgate’s approach in subduing the former Monaco star saw the Three Lions defend in a back three whenever they had possession, with Walker seldom pushing forward as he kept a keen eye on the attacker.

This meant Luke Shaw was the more adventurous full-back for England, demonstrated by the eye test and evidenced by the players’ average positions. Is this an approach the adaptable Walid Regragui would take, especially as Hakimi has hitherto been the Atlas Lions’ more adventurous wide defender?

Mbappe’s disinclination to help out defensively meant England exploited the space behind France’s best player, intermittently overloading that flank in possession to force three-v-two situations or two-v-ones. Without the ball, the Three Lions looked to force Deschamps’ crew to build up down their right rather than through their more menacing left flank.

The outcome of Southgate’s scheme resulted in Mbappe having his fewest touches in this World Cup (40) and lowest in the opposition box (three). He neither scored nor assisted, ending a run of four successive starts, going back to 2018’s final with Croatia, in which he had been involved in a goal.

But while the 1966 world champions succeeded in nullifying the PSG superstar, they slept on Antoine Griezmann’s excellence.

The Atletico Madrid attacker made his 72nd consecutive game for France last Saturday and is expected to make that 73 successive appearances for the defending world champions against Morocco save for a late injury, demonstrating his dependability for the national team.

While Mbappe adulation has dominated in Qatar, the former Barcelona player has arguably been at par with his compatriot. No player has fashioned more big chances than Griezmann, with the sixth of that lot a perfect cross that found match-winner Olivier Giroud to score the game’s deciding effort.

Only Messi has created as many chances as the Frenchman (16) but his superior Expected Assists (xA) — 2.9 to the Argentinean’s 1.2 — reveals that Griezmann has created more high-value opportunities at the finals.

Backing that up with 24 recoveries — only Dayot Upamecano (29) has more for Les Blues — highlights his inclination to regain possession for his team. He is far from being labelled as a luxury player.

Griezmann’s two assists in the 2-1 win over England took him level with Bruno Fernandes and Harry Kane on three assists, even though the first of that pair owed to the brilliance of Aurelien Tchouameni from 30 yards.

France were passive for long periods against Southgate’s crew but their individuals came up trumps after Mbappe was manacled to make Les Blues the first reigning champions to advance to the competition’s last four since Brazil in 1998.

Another win for France on Wednesday, and they will go within one more win of becoming the first side since Brazil in 1962 to retain their world title.

Standing in their way are this fearless Morocco side, who have risen above limitations to surpass expectations en route to an unprecedented semi-final.

Regragui’s troops are walking wounded, and it was doubly evident when Hakimi was the sole survivor of the Atlas Lions’ preferred defensive quartet in their 1-0 success over Portugal last time out.

The 47-year-old’s organisation has been one of the hallmarks of his side’s run to the last four, and he is expected to have the plan to shackle Mbappe. But he must equally pay attention to the lesser-sung hero in Griezmann.

Again, Morocco have nothing to fear. And you can be assured they will give everything against France in what is their biggest test yet on the world stage.