Saul Niguez scored the only goal of the game as Atletico Madrid responded to their Copa del Rey elimination with an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Osasuna that maintained their grip on LaLiga's top four.

Diego Simeone's side suffered a 3-1 extra-time loss to Real Madrid in the Copa quarter-finals on Thursday and were far from their best three days later at El Sadar.

Jan Oblak had to keep Osasuna at bay in the second half, before substitute Saul's calm 74th-minute finish proved the difference as Atletico recorded a much-needed triumph.

Victory moved Atletico three points clear of Villarreal and Real Betis in fifth and sixth respectively, while Simeone's side trail Real Sociedad – who play Real Madrid later on Sunday – by four.

An offside flag rendered Oblak's impressive 23rd-minute save against Chimy Avila redundant before Jose Gimenez headed over a presentable chance from Antoine Griezmann's in-swinging corner at the other end.

Aitor Fernandez repelled Griezmann from close range after a scramble inside the area, though neither side impressed during an otherwise drab first half.

Griezmann forced another smart Fernandez stop with a low drive immediately after the interval, while Avila headed David Garcia's deep right-wing cross narrowly over.

Oblak expertly denied Moi Gomez's back-post half-volley just past the hour, and that save proved pivotal when Saul raced onto Rodrigo De Paul's throughball to find the bottom-right corner and secure victory.

Diego Simeone is ready to get Memphis Depay "hooked" on Atletico Madrid's passion following his arrival from Barcelona.

The Netherlands international made his debut as a second-half substitute in Saturday's 3-0 victory over Real Valladolid at the Civitas Metropolitano.

Depay's move comes after Joao Felix's loan to Chelsea and provides Simeone with another option in the final third, though he does not see the forward as a "pure striker" to lead the line.

"I see him as similar to [Diego] Costa, who wasn't a pure striker. When we put him as a striker, it was because he had the conditions and he wanted to play on the wing," he told DAZN.

"Depay has strength, power. You need to work and help us and we need to help you.

"He has played little, and we will give him minutes and training and get him hooked on our passion."

While there was excitement for Depay's maiden outing, it was the display of a pink-haired Antoine Griezmann that dazzled the spectators, with the France international pulling the strings.

Setting up Alvaro Morata and Mario Hermoso either side of a goal of his own, Griezmann has flourished in a deeper role but believes he can still perform to a higher standard.

"I know I have a lot of freedom here, having to work defensively. When I can do offensively, it helps me to be happy," he told DAZN.

"I'm enjoying myself, I haven't reached my best level yet. I'm getting closer little by little. I really enjoy fighting for this coach and this club.

"It's my home, it's the joy that people give me. All the workers of the club make me very happy; I enjoy it a lot with my team-mates.

"When I do weird or colourful hairstyles, it shows that I am very happy."

Antoine Griezmann starred as Atletico Madrid returned to winning ways in LaLiga with a 3-0 victory over Real Valladolid.

Three goals in 10 first-half minutes at the Civitas Metropolitano put Diego Simeone's side in control en route to their first league victory of 2023.

Griezmann's stellar assist set up Alvaro Morata's opener, with the France international then adding his own name to the scoresheet with a cheeky finish.

It was also Griezmann's delivery that led to Mario Hermoso firing home on the rebound as Los Colchoneros set down a marker in the fierce battle for a top-four finish.

Morata started brightly and opened the scoring in the 18th minute, deceiving a defender with a feint and slotting past Jordi Masip after Griezmann's outrageous backheel.

The hosts doubled their advantage five minutes later as Griezmann flicked Nahuel Molina's driven cross beyond Masip at the near post.

Hermoso soon added a third, blasting in from close range after his initial header from Griezmann's free-kick was parried by the goalkeeper.

Thinking ahead to the midweek Copa del Rey clash with Real Madrid, Diego Simeone shuffled his deck before the hour, and the introduction of Barcelona-linked Yannick Carrasco drew jeers from sections of the crowd.

But Atletico continued to threaten, Koke hitting the crossbar and Angel Correa seeing a low drive strike both posts.

Memphis Depay, making his debut after joining from Barca, was introduced for a 15-minute cameo as Atletico ultimately coasted to a straightforward victory that puts them three points clear of the chasing pack.

The 2022 World Cup was unique for many reasons.

It was the first World Cup to be played in the Middle East, and the first one to take place in the middle of the season, as far as Europe's top clubs are concerned.

One thing that did not change, of course, was players being able to use the tournament as a platform to show what they can do on the biggest stage, and perhaps get big moves on the back of it.

While Josko Gvardiol, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis Mac Allister and Jude Bellingham are among the players to possibly fall into that category, Antoine Griezmann is different.

Griezmann is not the youngster making his name, but he did shine in Qatar as, in the space of seven games, he arguably redefined his own position.

That is not to say Griezmann had not been impressive this season prior to the World Cup. Before the tournament he had directly contributed to 10 goals for Atletico Madrid, scoring five and creating as many.

Griezmann's form has come during a season in which he had to settle for a substitute role up until September 18, due to Atleti attempting to navigate a financial clause in their loan agreement with Barcelona, which would have kicked in had the 31-year-old played a certain amount of minutes.

Had that clause been activated, Atleti would have had to pay €40million to re-sign Griezmann. As it was, they paid under half of that to bring him back to the club permanently in October.

It's Barca up next for Atleti in the highlight fixture of this weekend's LaLiga matches. Going into that match, Griezmann is a player reimagined.

 

The creator in chief

Griezmann has returned from the World Cup with a vigour and verve to his play perhaps not seen since his prime years at Atleti back in 2017 to 2019.

His goal contributions stand at 13 (five more than any of his team-mates) after three assists across two appearances since Atleti's campaign restarted – one game in LaLiga and one in the Copa del Rey.

Griezmann leads the club's scoring charts along with Alvaro Morata while his tally of seven assists is four clear of next-best Joao Felix, who seems destined to leave the club this month. None of his team-mates come close to matching Griezmann's 42 chances created, and 35 of those have come from open play.

But it's Griezmann's positioning that is the truly interesting aspect of his fine form.

Didier Deschamps has often utilised Griezmann as a second striker in international football. That was the position he played in at Euro 2016, and during France's successful run at the 2018 World Cup.

Yet in Qatar, Griezmann was deployed as the most advanced of a midfield trio, and there he showed his ability to not only find space in the final third, but run games altogether.

 

Only Kylian Mbappe (49) was involved in more shot-ending attacking sequences for France at the tournament than Griezmann (30).

However, of Griezmann's 361 open-play touches, just 14 came in the opposition box, with the vast majority clustered in the middle of the park.

Not that it prevented Griezmann from wielding his influence. He provided three assists, leading the competition alongside Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Ivan Perisic and Lionel Messi. Unlike all of those players, however, Griezmann's expected assists (xA) of 3.6 was actually slightly underperformed. Essentially, he was creating higher quality chances for those assists than his counterparts.

 

That quality was evidenced with a sublime cross into Olivier Giroud for France's second goal in the 2-1 quarter-final victory over England, having earlier teed up Aurelien Tchouameni's strike to move ahead of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry in terms of the most assists for Les Bleus. Griezmann's 28 assists rank as the most by any France player for his country in the last 50 years.

Griezmann's 22 chances created were the most at the tournament, albeit only nine of those came from open play. When it came to creativity, Griezmann was at the top of his game.

From poacher to playmaker

It was certainly a case of picking up where he left off for Griezmann when Atleti took on Elche in LaLiga on December 29. Diego Simeone's side won 2-0, and Griezmann was superb.

He set up both goals and created four chances. No player attempted more passes in the opposition half (37), or played in more crosses (five).

Despite Atleti having lined up in a 3-4-3, with Griezmann nominally positioned on the right flank, his average position was just ahead of the halfway line.

It was a similar story against Real Oviedo on Wednesday in the Copa del Rey. While he was supposedly playing in a front two alongside Alvaro Morata, Griezmann's touches were centred around the halfway line, with only two coming in the opposition box.

Dovetailing with Morata in a forward line, or indeed playing as an inside forward in a 3-4-3, is in principle ideal for Griezmann to drop into a similar role as to the one he thrived in during the World Cup.

Barca best be wary

It would seem the two-man attack would provide the perfect platform for Griezmann to show what Barca never managed to unlock on a consistent basis during his two years at the club.

Not that his time at Barca was a complete failure. Griezmann scored 35 goals and assisted a further 16 across 102 appearances. But he looks like he has his mojo back now. In fact, no LaLiga player has assisted more goals in all competitions.

Morata should provide the pace and work rate to stretch Barca's backline, handing Griezmann the space to drop between the lines and pull the strings.

Griezmann is averaging 73.4 touches per 90 minutes for Atleti this term, but only 4.8 in the opposition's box. His role has been gradually developing over the course of the campaign and the World Cup proved just how effective he can be.

Barca twice gave away the lead against Intercity Sant Joan d'Alacant in their Copa del Rey tie, and as Inter and Bayern Munich displayed in the Champions League, the Blaugrana's defence can be got at, even if in LaLiga Xavi's side have conceded just six times.

If Griezmann, who at least might be easier to spot, what with his bright pink hair, can replicate the influence he had in Qatar, Barca will be hard-pressed to stop him.

Barcelona have been beaten without scoring a goal in their past two trips to Atletico Madrid and could find themselves off the top of LaLiga if they suffer more misery in the capital on Sunday.

A fiery 1-1 draw with Espanyol on New Year's Eve left Barca level on points with Real Madrid at the summit in what is shaping up to be an enthralling title race.

Xavi's side travel to the Metropolitano for their first LaLiga game of the year on the back of a Copa del Rey scare, avoiding an upset by beating third-tier Intercity 4-3 after extra time.

Fourth-placed Atleti have secured back-to-back 2-0 wins and will be looking for a third consecutive home victory over the Blaugrana in the top flight.

With Carlo Ancelotti's men travelling to Villarreal a day earlier, Barca may need a win against Atletico to go back to the top of the table and they will be without the suspended Robert Lewandowski.

Stats Perform pick out the standout Opta numbers to preview the big game.

Barca hoping for same story in New Year

This will be the fifth time Barca have faced Atleti in their first game of a calendar year.

If history is anything to go by, the Catalan giants could be heading home with all three points in the bank as they have not lost in all four of the previous such meetings.

Barca beat Atleti in their first league games in 1930, 1951 and 1989, with the other encounter ending in a draw.

If looking that far back is not for you, Barca have been in excellent recent form on the road – winning 12 of their past 14 away games in LaLiga, with just one defeat.


Griezmann to return to haunt Barca?

In-form forward Antoine Griezmann is set to face Barca for the first time since he made a permanent move from Camp Nou to Atleti in October.

The France international endured a disappointing spell with the Blaugrana, but is very much at home again under Diego Simeone.

After some outstanding World Cup displays in Qatar, Griezmann has provided three assists in two matches back on club duty – the latest being a sublime first-time cushioned pass to set up Marcos Llorente in the 2-0 Copa del Rey defeat of Real Oviedo on Wednesday.

A revitalised Griezmann has been involved in 10 LaLiga goals for the Rojiblancos this season – five goals and as many assists. That is three more than he managed from 29 appearances in the competition in the 2021-22 campaign.

 

Dembele delivering for Xavi

Ousmane Dembele continues to show why Barca were so eager to keep him after his contract expired at the end of last season.

The France winger scored his eighth goal of Xavi's reign in a thrilling cup tie against Intercity.

Dembele has racked up 20 assists since Xavi was appointed in November 2021, giving him the most goal involvements for Barca during the head coach's tenure.


Joao Felix catching the eye in shop window

Joao Felix continues to be linked with a move, Manchester United among the clubs linked with the wantaway Atletico forward.

He has clearly not been affected by uncertainty over his future, scoring in three consecutive LaLiga games for the first time during his Atleti career.

The Portugal international has found the back of the net four times in his past three LaLiga matches, while he also struck against Ghana in the World Cup.

Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone believes Antoine Griezmann is silencing his "many, many" doubters with form for club and country that proves he is still "extraordinary".

Griezmann had become a source of frustration for Barcelona fans during his two-year spell at Camp Nou, and also left many underwhelmed upon his return to Atletico in 2021.

He began look more influential during the first half of this season but a €40million purchase option centred around the number of minutes he played meant he was rarely a starter until Barca dropped their asking price and agreed a permanent sale to Atletico for €20m in October.

Griezmann then enjoyed a tremendous World Cup campaign with France despite featuring in a much deeper position, playing a vital role as Les Bleus made it all the way to the final before dramatically losing on penalties to Argentina.

Since returning to club action, he has tallied three assists in two matches, including a gorgeous first-time cushioned volley pass to set up Marcos Llorente in the 2-0 Copa del Rey defeat of second-tier Real Oviedo on Wednesday.

Simeone had always backed Griezmann, and he believes some of his critics are now being hushed.

"You have to go back and remember seven days before the World Cup, how he played in the first game [in the Copa del Rey] we had. He did it with the same dedication, the same commitment," Simeone told reporters.

"Antoine always wanted to be here. He regained the affection of the fans; [on] the field [he] speaks, and it is a good image for his teammates, wanting them to reach an important level.

"He is an extraordinary player despite the fact that many, many, thought otherwise."

Up next for Atletico on Sunday in LaLiga is the visit of Griezmann's former team, Barca.

 

Atletico Madrid secured their place in the last 16 of the Copa del Rey with little fuss as they beat Real Oviedo 2-0 at Estadio Calos Tartiere on Wednesday.

The second-tier hosts arguably had the better opportunities, particularly in the first half, but Atletico were comfortable for much of the game as they avoided an upset.

Marcos Llorente landed the decisive blow in the first half after a period of Oviedo pressure, with Antoine Griezmann – who claimed two assists in the weekend win over Elche – brilliantly setting him up.

Atletico allowed Oviedo to enjoy plenty of possession after the break, but the visitors looked even more comfortable than before and finished the hosts off through substitute Pablo Barrios late on.

Alvaro Morata fired just wide and Llorente forced Tomeu Nadal into a necessary save as Atletico began with intent, but Oviedo soon settled and created chances of their own.

Samuel Obeng was their chief threat but put an inviting Hugo Rama cross into the side-netting from close range and volleyed over 12 yards out either side of Rodrigo Tarin drilling agonisingly past Jan Oblak's left-hand post.

Atletico capitalised in the 24th minute, Llorente getting a little lucky as his scuffed effort beat Nadal after Griezmann's gorgeous first-time pass – a cushioned volley – released him through on goal.

Borja Baston, an Atletico academy product, came on for Oviedo at half-time and saw an early effort fly just off target.

But the game was put beyond doubt seven minutes from time as Barrios – who also scored in the previous round – collected Angel Correa's well-weighted lay-off and finished through Nadal's legs.

Lionel Messi is already set to make history in Sunday's World Cup final. It is up to France to ensure he does not also take home the trophy.

Messi, in likely his last World Cup match, will set the outright record for finals appearances (26) as he gets his second shot at glory.

The Argentina captain was part of the team defeated 1-0 by Germany in the final eight years ago. Their title tilt at Russia 2018 then ended at the last-16 stage, beaten by France.

But Messi has guided his side through to the Lusail Stadium showpiece this time, where France are again their opponents.

France have won only three of 12 meetings with Argentina in all competitions and lost two of three World Cup clashes, but that epic 4-3 victory at the previous World Cup set Didier Deschamps' men on course for the title.

 

Indeed, Les Bleus have won seven World Cup knockout games in succession – two shy of Brazil's record – as they look to become only the third side (after Brazil in 1962 and Italy in 1938) to successfully defend their title. Hugo Lloris could become the first player to captain a team to triumphs in consecutive finals, while Didier Deschamps could become the first coach to do so since Vittorio Pozzo oversaw both Italy successes in the 1930s.

Other omens are more positive for Argentina: the last time the two World Cup finalists had both lost earlier in the same campaign – Messi and Co. were stunned by Saudi Arabia, while France lost to Tunisia – the Albiceleste beat the Netherlands to the 1978 title. Cesar Luis Menotti, in charge of Argentina in 1978, was the last coach younger than Lionel Scaloni to lift the World Cup.

But it is the other Lionel who is understandably hogging the limelight.

Messi would be a popular winner just about everywhere – except in the country where he plays his club football with Paris Saint-Germain.

"We are the team of France in the final of the World Cup. We fight for our team, our country," said Ousmane Dembele of the possibility of he and his team-mates playing the role of party poopers.

"All the players and the French want to win the World Cup and bring back a third star. It would be good for his career if Messi won the World Cup, but we also want to win the World Cup.

"Every football player wants to win the World Cup. He has had a great career and he lacks this trophy, but we represent our country. We want to win the World Cup. I hope France will win this World Cup."

Dembele also spoke of the importance of France keeping the ball away from Argentina's "exceptional" talisman, someone he knows well from Messi's time at Barcelona.

Antoine Griezmann, another of their then Barca team-mates, may have a key role to play in that sense, although his new posting in midfield has done little to slow his productivity in the final third.

Griezmann has created more chances (21) with a higher expected assists value (3.5) than any other player at this World Cup. He has been vital to France's tournament-leading non-penalty expected goals total of 11.9, although Argentina have allowed just 5.7 shots worth 0.4 xG on average in Qatar – two 2022 lows.

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Argentina – Lionel Messi

There can only be one man, so influential has Messi been for Argentina to this point. His five goals and three assists at this tournament have boosted the 35-year-old to a joint-record 19 goal involvements across his World Cup career. Do not count against him reaching a landmark 20 with a goal in the final; he would become the first player ever to score in every round at a single World Cup.

France – Kylian Mbappe

Whatever Messi can do, PSG club-mate Mbappe will hope to do also. Of course, unlike Messi, he has won a World Cup, scoring in the final against Croatia in Russia. Should Mbappe net again, he would become the youngest player to get on the scoresheet in multiple finals at 23.

Either Griezmann or Mbappe have the opportunity to become the fifth man to score in two finals and the second (after Brazil's Vava in 1958 and 1962) to score in two in a row.

PREDICTION

It is very, very nearly too close to call. Just 0.1 per cent splits the two teams, according to Opta's prediction model, which probably matches the public perception of the fixture.

The supercomputer gives Argentina the slightest of edges at 35.1 per cent, with France rated at 35.0 per cent. With that in mind, do not discount extra time and penalties, with the draw considered a similarly strong 29.9 per cent shot.

Newcastle United are reportedly looking to add more firepower to their forward line, and have identified Napoli's Khvicha Kvaratskhelia as one of their "main priorities".

Kvaratskhelia, 21, arrived in Napoli in July after a €10million purchase from Georgian side Dinamo Batumi, having previously played with Russia's Rubin Kazan before the invasion of Ukraine allowed foreign players to leave.

The Georgia international with 19 senior caps under his belt has been a revelation for Napoli, starting 11 of the 12 games he has been healthy for, resulting in six goals and seven assists for the Serie A leaders.

He has been just as impressive in the Champions League, collecting both a goal and an assist in back-to-back wins over Ajax, after contributing an assist in a 4-1 demolition of Liverpool.

Just six months after his arrival in Italy, the exciting winger's transfer value has skyrocketed, and Napoli will be faced with a tough decision about whether to cash-in on the player dubbed 'Kvaradona'.

 

TOP STORY – NEWCASTLE PLAN MOVE FOR GEORGIAN SENSATION KVARATSKHELIA

According to The Times, Kvaratskhelia has been scouted regularly by Newcastle this season, and they have been so impressed that "he has become one of the club's main priorities for the next two transfer windows".

With Napoli in the hunt for their first Serie A title since the 1989-90 season, it remains to be seen if they would part ways with one of their key contributors, but a bid in excess of €50m could force the Italian side into a serious meeting.

Newcastle are also enjoying their best season in some time, and although they will have their sights set on a Champions League berth, the Magpies will likely persist at the end of the season if a transfer in January is not an option.

ROUND-UP

– Mediafoot is reporting Manchester United are considering a move for 31-year-old Atletico Madrid and France forward Antoine Griezmann, while The Telegraph claims the Red Devils are after 23-year-old PSV and the Netherlands standout Cody Gakpo.

– According to The Times, Wolves are planning a busy transfer window, with Todofichajes reporting they want Spanish international Isco from Sevilla, as well as United right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka, per Express and Star.

– Journalist Ekrem Konur believes Everton have entered the bidding war for 22-year-old Ajax midfielder Mohammed Kudus after his excellent World Cup for Ghana.

– Sky Sports is reporting Leicester City, Wolves and West Ham are all showing interest in 22-year-old Morocco midfielder Azzedine Ounahi, who plays for Angers in Ligue 1.

– According to Calciomercato, Paris Saint-Germain are confident they will land Inter centre-back Milan Skriniar on a free transfer at the end of the season. 

Playing Lionel Messi in the World Cup final is a "totally different proposition", according to France's Antoine Griezmann after his team secured their place in Sunday's showpiece match.

France ended Morocco's fairytale run with a 2-0 semi-final victory as goals from Theo Hernandez and Randal Kolo Muani sent Les Bleus through to a second consecutive World Cup final.

Didier Deschamps' side could become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to retain international football's top prize, having lifted the trophy in Russia in 2018.

But standing in their way is Messi's Argentina, who cruised past Croatia on Tuesday to clinch their spot in a sixth World Cup final, with only Germany having been in the tournament's deciding match on more occasions.

Messi has broken record after record in Qatar, surpassing Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina's top World Cup goalscorer while he is set to become the tournament's highest all-time appearance holder if he plays on Sunday.

With the final against France likely representing the last opportunity for Messi to finally get his hands on the World Cup trophy, Griezmann acknowledged it will be a tough task to slow down La Albiceleste.

"Any team with Messi in is a totally different proposition," Griezmann told reporters at his post-match news conference.

"All of the matches we have seen Argentina play, we know how they play - they are difficult.

"They seem to be on top form, there isn’t only Messi - they have a strong side around him.

"We know it is going to be a tough game and they are going to have the support of the crowd.

"We will get back to working tomorrow and see how we can hurt them, we will be well prepared."

France and Argentina played out a seven-goal thriller at the 2018 World Cup, with Les Bleus' 4-3 triumph sending them on to eventual glory.

Messi failed to get on the scoresheet in that encounter, but Deschamps is fully aware of the threat the Paris Saint-Germain forward will pose on Sunday at Lusail Stadium.

"Lionel Messi has been in scintillating form since the beginning of the tournament," Deschamps said. "Four years ago, things were different of course.

"He actually played as a centre-forward against us then, which caught us by surprise. Now he is playing in a tandem just behind the centre-forward.

"He is picking up the ball, running with it and looking in great form. He is one of the best players in the world and he has shown that.

"We are going to try and counter Messi’s threat and try to stop him influencing the game. Of course, Argentina are going to do the same to my players and they are a different side to the one we faced four years ago."

Antoine Griezmann has been "a mix of Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini" in France's run to the World Cup semi-finals, according to Christophe Dugarry.

While the tournament's joint-top scorer Kylian Mbappe has grabbed most of the headlines, the likes of Olivier Giroud and Griezmann have also starred for France.

Griezmann has played in a roaming role for Les Blues in Qatar and has three assists to his name, a tally that only Bruno Fernandes, Harry Kane and Lionel Messi can match.

He is behind only Argentina's Messi in terms of chances created (17 compared to 18), having played a game less, and is joint-second for possession won in the final third.

The Atletico Madrid forward was named the third-best player of the 2018 World Cup when France lifted the trophy, and Dugarry believes he has played just as big a part this time.

"Griezmann, I find him simply exceptional since the start of the competition," Dugarry, who was part of France's 1998 World Cup-winning side, told RMC.

"I even find him, at times, 'Zidane-esque'. He always has the right tone, the right pass. I sincerely think that the France team would not be the same without him.

"We often lack rhythm in our game; there's not a lot of intensity. But, as soon as Antoine touches the ball, he puts rhythm on a pass, on a vision. He has a mix of Zizou and Platini. 

"Platini, he enlightened the game, he had a vision. He saw the game before the others. Griezmann, I find him breathtaking. I find him calm, I find him serene, I find him mature."

 

Griezmann drifted to the left to play in a delightful cross for Giroud's headed winner in the 2-1 quarter-final victory against England, having earlier assisted Aurelien Tchouameni.

The 31-year-old has been involved in eight goals in his last eight World Cup starts (three goals, five assists), with seven of those involvements coming in the knockout stages.

"The strength of Deschamps is to have put him in this position," Dugarry said of Griezmann's unorthodox positioning. 

"I think [Atletico boss] Diego Simeone will have to do it too. Griezmann must play as a midfielder. In addition, he runs, he gallops, he fills the gaps, he feels the opponents' play. 

"It's a bit like a tennis player: the guy always returns the ball to you because he knows where you're going to send the ball."

Didier Deschamps' side will now face Morocco on Wednesday for the right to play Argentina, who defeated Croatia 3-0 in the other semi-final.

France are playing in their seventh World Cup semi-final and have won each of their past three at this stage, whereas Morocco are the first African side to make it this far.

France's build-up to the World Cup was dominated by talk of the so-called "holders' curse" and Didier Deschamps' uncertain future.

A few weeks later Les Bleus are on the verge of becoming the first reigning champions to reach the final since Brazil in 1998 – you have to go back another 50 years to the last time a European nation achieved such a feat when Italy did so in 1938.

Deschamps' preparations were not helped by injuries to important players, but France's ruthlessness going forward has inspired another deep run into the tournament after seeing off England in the quarter-finals despite arguably being second best.

France go into Wednesday's semi-final at Al Bayt Stadium against Morocco as overwhelming favourites.

It will be the defending champions' seventh World Cup semi-final. After losing their first three, each one they have contested since - in 1998, 2006 and 2018 - has ended in French celebrations.

Given the previous three holders before France crashed out in the group stage (Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018), Deschamps is pleased to have avoided humiliation – but they still have ambitions to satisfy.

"We've got to the semis, closer to the final, and this was an important achievement, so we can believe in ourselves, but we have a big game on Wednesday," he said.

"We can be satisfied with what we've done so far, even though we want to go further. In the past, the world champions haven't always done well in World Cups and we've overcome that challenge, but we have an important game on Wednesday."

While France have the weight of big expectations on their shoulders, Morocco will be fearless after seeing off both Spain and Portugal en route to becoming Africa's first World Cup semi-finalists.

Deschamps is wary of the threat posed by the Atlas Lions.

"It's fantastic what [coach Walid Regragui] has achieved," he added. "Morocco have played and beaten some of the best teams in the world, and that's down to the players, the coach, the staff.

"It's a historic achievement. It's not a surprise now because we've seen them put in a number of top performances. They haven't stolen the victories; they've deserved them."

Regragui has been lauded for Morocco's run, partly because his leadership qualities are underpinned by an articulate and wise demeanour.

Under his guidance, Morocco have extended their World Cup unbeaten run to six matches, a record for an African nation.

Throughout the tournament, Regragui has spoken of his desire to unite the Arab world; now he is relishing Morocco's chance to represent Africa.

"We advanced with our qualities. We lost a lot of players before the World Cup. We lost Amine [Harit], [Imran] Louza, [Adam] Masina… but we held on," he said.

"We created a state of mind. You have to fight for these people, to make them happy.

"Today, Africa has returned to centre stage. Each time, [African teams] were asked: 'when are you going to pass the [quarter-final] stage?' It's done.

"It's not just me. And it's not over."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France – Antoine Griezmann

With Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud hogging most of the headlines for France, Griezmann has made a big impact and Morocco must find a way of keeping him quiet.

 

The Atletico Madrid man has performed a vital playmaking role for Les Bleus and set up both goals in their quarter-final win over England, taking his goal-involvement tally to eight in his past eight World Cup starts.

Morocco – Sofyan Amrabat

Once again, Morocco are unlikely to have most of the ball, so the combativeness of players like Azzedine Ounahi and Amrabat in midfield could be key, particularly with Griezmann so influential in his new midfield position.

Ounahi probably trumps Amrabat in the elegance stakes, but the latter's eight successful tackles is the fourth-highest among midfielders at the World Cup, while his tournament-leading 41 recoveries demonstrates the Fiorentina star's fine understanding of how to read the game. He's a big asset.

 

PREDICTION

It won't come as a huge shock to learn Les Bleus are the clear favourites with Stats Perform's AI model.

Deschamps' men have a 64.3 per cent chance of winning, the supercomputer reckons.

Morocco, of course, already defied the odds to get this far, though their 13 per cent likelihood of victory is reduction from 18.8 per cent ahead of the Portugal game.

The draw is rated at 22.7 per cent, and the Atlas Lions would presumably take that in a heartbeat.

France coach Didier Deschamps saluted Antoine Griezmann for playing a starring role in Les Bleus' run to the World Cup semi-finals after coming through "challenging times".

Deschamps' side take on Morocco in the second semi on Wednesday, with France aiming to become the first European nation to reach successive World Cup finals since Italy in 1938.

While Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud have grabbed the headlines, Griezmann has been similarly key to the holders' progress despite being used in a new position, essentially in midfield.

The Atletico Madrid player has created more chances (17) and recorded more expected assists (2.9) than anyone else at the tournament, while his two assists against England in the quarter-finals took him to three for the campaign – no one has more.

 

Further to that, his 28 involvements in shot-ending open-play sequences is second only to Mbappe (40) in the France squad, highlighting his influence in their build-up play.

After several difficult years with Barcelona and back at Atletico, Griezmann's form has surprised some, but not Deschamps.

"Yes, he's had a great tournament, but we'll need him to be just as good [on Wednesday]," Deschamps told reporters in Tuesday's pre-match press conference.

"He's the type of player who can really change a team because he's so hard-working and so technically gifted. He's playing slightly different role in this World Cup, but it suits him well.

"He likes defending just as much as attacking and being a playmaker. Of course, his main responsibility isn't ball winning; his left foot is so wonderful, he creates chances for others.

"He's someone who always thinks of the team above everything else. He's extremely hard-working, probably more so than most players.

"He's been an elite player for 10 years now. Of course, he's gone through challenging times like any player, but he's mentally very strong. Like all world-class players, he's at his best in the most important games."

 

Dayot Upamecano is another France player impressing in Qatar after having to overcome certain struggles.

Although a regular at Bundesliga level from the age of 18, Upamecano did not win his first senior cap until just before he turned 22.

Then, last year he found himself back with the Under-21s instead of in Deschamps' squad for Euro 2020 as he paid the price for some unconvincing early appearances with Les Bleus.

However, he has started all but one of France's World Cup games, with Deschamps pleased to see he has moved past some psychological barriers that were previously stunting his progress.

"Dayot did have an issue with his mental strength, which I think prevented him from being the top player we knew he could become," the coach added.

"He's managed to overcome those challenges, he feels more relaxed, more confident. I do think that's what helped him reach his best level and show the qualities he has.

"He's very fit, good in tackling, good at passing. Sometimes he tries to overdo things a bit with his passing, is too ambitious, but he listens to advice, he's open-minded, relaxed, happy.

"Some players can be introverted in nature like him, and so maybe they need more time to develop and flourish.

"But I'm quite convinced when a player has potential that it will end up flourishing even if sometimes I must recognise there are other players in the squad who can also be very strong and have their role to play.

"So yes, he's been through challenging times, but he's now relaxed, more confident and showing he's a top player."

Hugo Lloris insists France will need 'all our strength, all our energy' when they face Morocco in the World Cup semi-finals.

Les Bleus became the first reigning champions to reach the last four since Brazil in 1998 after edging out England in a tight quarter-final on Saturday, Olivier Giroud's late header settling the tie.

It was a special day for Lloris, who became France's record cap holder after surpassing Lilian Thuram (142) with his 143rd international appearance.

To mark the occasion, the captain was presented with a commemorative shirt by Didier Deschamps as attention turns to the tournament's surprise package in Morocco, who became the first African nation to reach the semi-finals after stunning Portugal.

"[I am] still proud, still honoured to wear the shirt of Les Bleus, even after 143 appearances," Lloris said in a video posted on France's official Twitter account.

"I really want to thank the team, the staff, the entire management for making this game so special. Beating England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it will remain a special memory for me, but also for my family who were present.

"Now, we'll prepare well for this semi-final against Morocco. We'll need all our strength, all our energy knowing that there's something really special we can achieve.

"I think we're all aware of this, but we'll continue to be calm and collected. But it has to come from [the stomach]."

Antoine Griezmann was also presented with a personalised shirt, his pinpoint cross for Giroud's winner against England was his record-breaking 28th assist for Les Bleus.

The Atletico Madrid forward, who believes he will soon be surpassed by Kylian Mbappe (18), urged his team-mates not to lose sight on retaining the world title for the first time since Brazil in 1962.

"Kylian only needs 10 assists to reach 28, so I'm going to enjoy this moment!" he laughed. "There are still two games left, we can do it. Let's concentrate, be focused and enjoy."

Kyle Walker will not "roll out a red carpet" for Kylian Mbappe as England prepare to face France in the World Cup quarter-finals on Saturday.

Mbappe is the tournament's top scorer so far with five goals in four matches, including a double in the reigning champions' 3-1 victory over Poland in the round of 16.

That win set up a clash in the final eight with England, giving Three Lions' manager Gareth Southgate a headache on how to best counter the threat of Mbappe.

Walker is the player many believe will be chosen to deal with the power and pace of Mbappe, with the possibility that Southgate will opt to play with a back five.

While Walker lauded Mbappe's talents, the Manchester City defender feels he is well-equipped to cope with the Paris Saint-Germain star.

"Of course I understand the focus and I understand what I need to do to stop him," Walker told reporters. "It's easier said than done but I don't underestimate myself.

"I've come up against some of the best players in the world but I have to treat it just as another game. You have to give him respect but not too much.

"I'm not going to roll out a red carpet for him and tell him to score. It's a World Cup, it's do or die.

"I'm not going home so I'm not going to let him ruin that for my family."

Other France forwards have impressed alongside Mbappe, such as Ousmane Dembele and Olivier Giroud, the latter of whom became Les Bleus' all-time record goalscorer with his strike against Poland, with Walker stressing the focus is not just on the PSG forward.

Walker says it is important England pay due attention to all of France's attackers, and not just Mbappe, adding: "It will be a tough game but a team cannot just be about one person.

"When we've [City] played Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, we're not just thinking of Mbappe and it's the same on Saturday. 

"He's a tool in their armoury - and a very good one - but you can't underestimate their other players.

"We know he's a great player and that's why he's the focus of all questions. But let's not forget Olivier Giroud who has scored lots of goals, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann.

"For me all the questions shouldn't be about him [Mbappe]. I appreciate he's a great footballer, but there are others too."

At 32-years-old, Walker is one of the older members of England's squad, with young stars such as Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham playing a starring role in England's campaign so far.

Walker commended the Three Lions' new generation, reserving particular praise for Bellingham, who has lit up the tournament with his sparkling midfield displays at just 19-years-old.

"It is great for the English game," Walker declared. "As you mentioned, Jude [Bellingham] being one who has the courage to play for England that others didn't have when they were younger.

"They have no fear and they go in and express themselves. I feel the standard of players has gone up another level in this tournament."

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