Jalel Kadri had told Tunisia that nothing was impossible. After an almost unthinkable win over France they nearly believed him too. But Mathew Leckie’s goal for Australia, scored some 25km away against Denmark, proved more crucial than the solitary one scored here as they, not Tunisia, advanced to the last 16 of the World Cup.
Wahbi Khazri had thought he was the hero, his second-half goal at the Education City Stadium to down the defending champions securing a famous 1-0 win and, at the time, progress to the next round at the expense of the other two in Group D, only for Leckie’s effort to break Danish hearts and the majority of those here, Antoine Griezmann’s stoppage-time equaliser threatening to do the same only for it to be ruled out for offside at the last.
Tunisia now depart this stage, a vigorous, vibrant presence throughout the tournament now silenced, their brilliant performance against one of the world’s best ultimately and heart-wrenchingly not enough as the Socceroos instead progressed in second place. The impact of the threat they posed to one of the competition favourites, though, will surely linger.
The much-changed French were wretched, the many unanswered questions posed by the Eagles of Carthage in a pulsating game played out against a deafening din, sure to concern Didier Deschamps long after this one.
Indeed, should they not improve when the vaunted cavalry return, many will look back on the French manager’s decision to so change a winning team here as a potentially pivotal one.
Tunisia, needing a win and help to progress for the first time in their history, shot out of a cannon, the noise from the red and white wall behind them almost literally pushing them forward. The throngs were soon in delirium when Nader Ghandri deflected a Khazri free kick in after just eight minutes, only for the linesman’s flag to swiftly deflate them. The pattern was set, however, and the thrown-together French, making nine changes from the win over Denmark four days ago, had their backs firmly pressed against the wall.
Captain Khazri, once of Sunderland, was a constant menace, terrorising Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate with his shrewd movement and sheer tenacity, a well-hit half-volley from outside the box forcing Steve Mandanda into his most challenging save of the opening half.
Slimane, who had earlier pressured Varane into a mistake in his own area, had a header saved as a rejigged and rattled France, with too many square pegs in round holes, failed to gain any kind of foothold in the game. Eduardo Camavinga, the elegant, do-it-all central midfielder of Real Madrid, enduring a torrid time as a makeshift left-back.
Shorn of the ball and any kind of control Les Bleus retreated further and further, Kingsley Coman skewing the only chance of note wide when well found by Youssouf Fofana.
As soon as Khazri had struck, calmly side-footing past Mandanda after Fofana had been robbed in midfield, Deschamps had seen enough. Kylian Mbappe was thrown on to do what those preferred instead had so comprehensively failed to do. Griezmann would soon follow.
Adrien Rabiot, another of Deschamps’ increasingly desperate rolls of the dice as time ebbed away, volleyed wide when the opening deserved better. Mbappe, jinking in from the left, forced Aymen Dahmen in the Tunisian goal into a sharp stop, before Randal Kolo Muani saw a deflected drive from distance flash just wide of the right-hand post.
An Mbappe free-kick, just where he would have hand-placed it 25 yards out, was fired into the wall in added time, before Griezmann’s late strike, deflected past Dahmen, sparked thoughts that France had stolen a share of the spoils they didn’t remotely deserve.
The full-time whistle appeared to blow amid the cacophony but, with the crowd baying, referee Matthew Conger went to the screen before deciding Griezmann was indeed offside in the build-up. Goal disallowed; Tunisian relief palpable.
The French slumped to the turf in defeat, even as group winners the manner of this shocking reverse is sure to live with them. The victorious Tunisians would soon join them though, news of Leckie’s goal for Australia finally, fatally filtering through.
The Tunisians would pick themselves up to celebrate, their adoring support welcoming them as the heroes they are after a performance every bit worthy of the adulation it received. It could have been so much more.
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