Kasper Hjulmand had told his Denmark side to “dream big” on the eve of this World Cup. But Tunisia have dreams too and gave their fancied European opponents everything they could handle and more in a hugely entertaining, blood and thunder clash at Education City Stadium.
The Danish coach has played down talk of his team being any kind of “favourites” for this tournament but after impressive qualifying and Nations League runs, where they beat France home and away, many have the Euro 2020 semi-finalists surpassing the quarter-finalists of 1998 and matching last summer or even better still here in Doha.
Tunisia are lucky to even be here after squeaking past Mali in a qualifying play-off with a healthy dose of good fortune, but a much-better run in qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations told of a side who quietly believed they too could make some noise.
If it was noise they wanted they got plenty from the stands here, their hugely vocal support – who far outnumbered their counterparts also decked in red and white – lustily booing the Danes as they came out to warm up, even with returning Christian Eriksen stepping on to a major tournament pitch for the first time since that fateful evening against Finland 18 months ago.
The decibel level only rose further as the relentless Aissa Laidouni started his afternoon as he meant to go on, clattering into Eriksen inside the first two minutes before roaring towards his supporters who, as they would go on to do throughout, roared back ever louder.
If Denmark were under any illusions that they wouldn’t be pushed in this opening game against one of the two minnows of Group D, they were given a rude awakening by a frantic start from Tunisia.
Pressing high and snapping into tackles in the middle of the park, led by a talismanic performance by Laidouni, they hassled and harried and never gave a Danish side full of pedigree any time or space.
Mohamed Drager saw a shot from range deflect and loop over before the tireless Issam Jebali had his first sight of Kasper Schmeichel’s goal, jinking through the heart of the Danish backline and poking beyond him before the linesman’s flag brought a premature end to the resulting deafening din.
While Denmark, with Eriksen growing more influential at the heart of their play, attempted to calm things down and take a measure of control, Tunisia refused and continued their breathless pace.
Jebali embodied all of that at the very front and when set free through the middle thought he’d opened the scoring with a delicate chipped finish only for Schmeichel to produce a world-class save to tip it past the post.
Tunisia had kept only a single clean sheet from their 15 previous appearances on this stage but goalkeeper Aymen Dahmen was rarely threatened before Denmark’s liveliest outlet, Andreas Skov Olsen, fired past him after good work from substitute Mikkel Damsgaard only for the linesman, just as he had the other way earlier, intervened.
If Denmark felt they may have weathered and got through the storm, a sustained second-half spell of Tunisian possession was “ole’d” from the crowd. Changes were needed in response for the Danes, Hjulmand turning to Andreas Cornelius, Mathias Jensen and Jesper Lindstrom from his bench.
It was Eriksen, though, the “heartbeat” of this group in the words of his coach, who forced the best save of the day out of Dahmen, the keeper flying to his left to brilliantly keep out a rising drive from the edge of the area. Andreas Christensen rose highest from the resulting corner to head across goal only for Cornelius to somehow contrive to himself head onto the post with the goal gaping.
With legs and minds understandably tiring, Denmark pushed for an unlikely and, in fairness, what would have been an undeserved winner. But unlike Senegal against the Netherlands a night ago, this dam didn’t break.
Hearts were in mouths when Yassine Meriah appeared to handle in the area from a Danish corner in injury time only for the roar from the red wall behind the goal when it was waved off by VAR to be as loud as any that preceded it, a first World Cup clean sheet since 1978 finally and safely secured.
Denmark’s hopes are still very much alive with France and Australia next up. They have more to play for and maybe special nights to come. But for this one, it was the dreams of Tunisia that came true.
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