TUNISIA players celebrate after Wahbi Khazri scores against France during their Group ‘D’ match at the Education City Stadium.—Reuters
TUNISIA players celebrate after Wahbi Khazri scores against France during their Group ‘D’ match at the Education City Stadium.—Reuters

PERHAPS Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia’s captain, their leader in attack, knew time was running out for him to make a difference. And his last act on the pitch here at the Education City Stadium on Wednesday evening was to give his side a 1-0 lead in the 58th minute, a goal that eventually proved to be the winner but couldn’t take his side through.

Coach Jalel Kadri had asked forward Issam Jebali to warm up and Khazri decided to go solo. Receiving the ball on the centre circle, the 31-year-old ran unchallenged to the France box before drifting to the left and sending a shot that rolled into the back of the net past Steve Mandanda.

But while the goal provided his side with a win to remember, Australia’s win over Denmark saw the valiant Tunisians eliminated; the Socceroos finishing second to France on goal difference.

Qualification to the round of 16 guaranteed, France needed just a draw against Tunisia to advance as Group ‘D’ winners at the outset and it allowed Didier Deschamps to test his bench-strength. He made nine changes to the side that started the win against Denmark in their last game and seven of them were making their first appearance in Qatar.

France are chasing history, attempting to become only the first team after Brazil in 1962 to defend the title. The holders, in securing qualification, had already broken the curse that has seen the last four European winners of the World Cup fall at the group stage in their title defence.

But the stars Deschamps had planned to rest in a bid to have them fresh for the challenge of the knockouts didn’t get the rest they’d hoped for. Deschamps threw them on as France chased the equaliser. Antoine Griezmann thought he’d got it deep in injury time but it was ruled out for offside. The other result though saw France finish top of the pile anyway.

Tunisia needed a win to have any chance of making the knockouts for the first time in their history and their fans had turned the Education City Stadium into a sea of red, rousing their team on to make the most of it and booing the anthem of their former French colonisers.

The Tunisians made the early running against the holders and had the ball in the back of the net in the eighth minute; Nader Ghadri turning in a free-kick from Khazri but it was disallowed for offside.

They kept on coming at France, getting away from a disjointed midfield comprising Aurelien Tchouameni, Yousouff Fofana and Jordan Veretout. Another midfielder, Eduardo Camavinga, was at left-back and yet another, Matteo Guendouzi, supplementing attackers Randal Kolo Muani and Kingsley Coman.

But captain Raphael Varane and Ibrahima Konate were holding firm in the face of a relentless Tunisian storm spearheaded by Khazri. Goalkeeper Mandanda was called into action to stop a fizzing effort from Khazri after Varane, who had made a clearance from almost the goalline earlier on, had lost the ball.

The half-time statistics reflected Tunisia’s attacking intent even though France had seen more of the ball. France had no shots on goal; the only chance they had was sliced wide by Coman in the 25th minute.

The second half started the same way, the Tunisians kept coming at France and then came the goal they’d been waiting for which forced Deschamps to throw on his main weapon, Kylian Mbappe, in an attempt to rescue a point.

France, however, failed to gain a foothold and a pitch invader decked in Palestinian colours briefly interrupted the game. Influential playmaker Antoine Griezmann was also sent on and was soon followed by Ousmane Dembele.

Deep into injury time, France got a free kick that Mbappe shot into the wall and Griezmann sparked wild celebrations, one that was matched by Tunisian fans when it was ruled out. But Tunisia got the win that ultimately counted for nothing.

Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2022

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