Tunisia won the second time out of the question but it wasn’t enough to send them off. It was the cruelest exit, but the most honorable one, and they will wonder how, having banked on an acclaimed draw with Denmark by edging out France’s second team, they will not make their debut in the knockout stage. The answer lies in the defeat sandwiched between the two, an unexpected whirlwind against Australia Ultimately, that means they and their vocal cohort of supporters must go home.
For two minutes of fun in the second half, they thought history was in the making. Wahbi Khazri had just scored the goal he deserved, capping off a personal and relentless performance after trailing through a garbled and murky set of France positions, the noise from the three-quarters of the crowd reaching a crescendo. They could have been home and dry as things were but then Matthew Leakey created an unexpected winner against the DanesWho failed to bring about the transformation that Tunisia relied on.
At least they earned points, by beating France For the first time since 1971, though, those too would have been denied had the VAR not intervened in an exceptional finale. Didier Deschamps had nine players rested from the starting line-up, and it was only after introductions by Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele that his team got a swing.
As Griezmann converted a blinking shot with what appeared to be the final measure, the referee, Matthew Conger, began to huff at full-time seconds later, the value of the finishing touches that could resolve a mess seemed clear. But the VAR was still checking the goal and after reviewing it on his screen, Conger ruled it out for offside. The players had to repeat the final moments, and this time Tunisia could celebrate, albeit with a sour taste.
Of their exit, Khazri said, “It’s our fault because we didn’t do what was necessary in the first two matches.” “We have mixed feelings. We are happy we beat France and we leave with our heads held high, but it is still bitter as it was nice to get to the last 16.”
Khazri was modest enough to avoid suggesting that he had not started those previous matches. This time he was persuaded at first and found himself at the center of it all, often disturbing simplicity and accomplishing the unlikely. He’s always been this type of player, but moments like the stellar run and finish after Steve Mandanda, thanks to Youssef Fofana’s excellent stealing by Elias Skhiri, make that contrast worthwhile.
France contributed little until the advent of the cavalry, but for Deschamps it was just an exercise in forming a lineup that could give his star a break. Eduardo Camavinga was deployed at left-back and Matteo Guendouzi wedged into an awkward role in front of him; Axel Dizzy was uncomfortable on the right of defence, while Kingsley Coman and Randall Kolo Mwane were unconvinced in attack. Potential future opponents, including England, may notice the lack of depth caused by their injuries.
Deschamps’ plan is for France to thrive on new feet when things get serious on Sunday. “I think we’ll see a benefit four days from now,” he said. “We can’t tick all the boxes. We were coming off a couple of high intensity games and needed a breath of fresh air. But we have to do better than we did, our opponent punished us and gave us a run for our money.”
Tunisia certainly did, bombarding France from both sides during the first half and seeing an early try from Nader El Ghandari get disallowed. A wicked cross from Khazri, one of six French-born members of the starting side, created the opportunity; Later, the former Sunderland striker Mandanda, who also hit a deflected header from Anis Benslimane, forced a half-volley save from goal.
The 37-year-old Mandanda was on the pitch in 2008 when France hosted Tunisia in Paris in an atmosphere of so much hostility that Nicolas Sarkozy, then president, demanded they stop playing their former North African colonies at home. The rematch took place in Rades two years later but France have not faced Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco since then.
Being outclassed this time around means Tunisia coach Jelil Kadri can make a case for keeping his job. “I don’t know why you insist on resigning,” he told the journalist, who asked him if he would step down. “My contract is based on goals. The goal has not been achieved but we have time to make the final decision and it will be up to the Tunisian federation to decide whether I have achieved the goals or not.”
Deschamps met his first in ensuring France topped the pack with their prize assets wrapped largely in cotton wool. “Now a second competition begins,” he said, and the effect of his rotation here would soon be understood.
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