Tunisia and France took each other on in the final round of Group D at the Education City Stadium on Wednesday, and the surprise of Tunisia winning the match probably wasn’t as great as it would’ve been had it happened in other circumstances. The only goal of the match was the work of Wahbi Khazri, who broke down the middle of the pitch and squeezed the ball past Steve Madanda in the 58th minute.
Tunisia’s honorable exit
Having played a goalless draw against Denmark and lost by a single goal to Australia, Tunisia entered the France clash with extremely slim chances of progressing to the knockout stage. They desperately needed to win and were perfectly aware of the possibility of even a triumph not being enough, if Australia managed to beat Denmark.
Nonetheless, with there being nothing for it, Jalal Qaderi’s men charged forward against the world champions, and having had one goal disallowed for offside, they managed to take the lead through Khazri just before the hour-mark. But the real heroics came in the last half and hour, when Tunisia withstood wave after wave of the French offensive, and even had their hopes shattered to million pieces seconds before the final whistle, but the VAR, which had thwarted them earlier, came to their rescue this time and ruled out Antoine Griezmann’s strike.
Tunisia won the game, but they soon realized that their defeat to Australia remained their downfall after all. The Socceroos did beat Denmark, and Tunisia finished third. Their supporters will certainly be proud of the effort their players put in to win this game, even if it was against a heavily rotated France.
The French rotation
Certain changes by Didier Deschamps going into this match were to be expected. After all, they had won both previous ones, beating Australia 4-1 and Denmark 2-1, and their place in the round of 16 was in no danger whatsoever. But the scale of the rotation by the title holders was still surprising.
Only Real Madrid midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni and Manchester United defender Raphael Varane kept their places in the starting XI, and even they weren’t quite up to their usual standards. Elsewhere, 37-year-old Madanda replaced Hugo Lloris between the posts, Ibrahima Konate stood in for Dayot Upamecano beside Varane, Edouardo Camavinga played on the left defensive flank to give Theo Hernandez some rest, Axel Disasi played instead of Benjamin Pavard on the right, Tchouameni was joined by Jordan Veretout and Youssuf Fofana in midfield. Matteo Guendouzi played rather higher than he’s used to, with him and Kingsley Coman supporting striker Randal Kolo Muani.
Still, Deschamps wasn’t all that happy to let Tunisia have it their own way for the whole match, and of all his usual starters upfront, only Olivier Giroud was left on the bench down to the final whistle. And yet, Kylian Mbappe, Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Adrien Rabiot, though they did bring change in terms of the contest on the pitch, failed to find an equalizer.
Speaking of failing, most of those who were given a chance to prove their worth to Deschamps in this match failed to do so. The moment that stood out was obviously the one preceding the goal, when Fofana lost the ball just short of the halfway line and instead of racing back to correct his mistake, he spread his arms in protest towards the referee, demanding a free-kick which wasn’t going to come. Khazri then made his run straight through the gaping hole in the French midfield, left wide by Fofana, before poking home with a bit of luck on his side as well.
The next round
With Tunisia on their way home, along with Denmark who finished last, Deschamps’ thoughts will have turned fully towards the round of 16 and the upcoming clash with Poland. There may have been some anxiety in the ranks of the French regarding the happenings in Group C, which could’ve had them facing Argentina and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi.
However, Messi and Co. bounced back from their shocking defeat to Saudi Arabia by beating Mexico and Poland, and broke to the top of the group, which means it’s Australia that now need to worry about playing against them; not France.
Poland are certainly a fine team too, and if they don’t have Messi in their ranks they do have a very motivated Robert Lewandowski, who will surely be difficult to stop as well.