Tunisia suffer cruel World Cup departure despite defeat of shadow France side

Wahbi Khazri’s strike midway through the second half had raised hopes of progress

This was cruellest yet most honourable of exits for Tunisia, who outplayed a second-string France team and were fine value for the win secured by Wahbi Khazri’s solo strike midway through the second half.

They will wonder how, having defeated the holders and drawn with Denmark, they have not broken their knock-out stage duck. Had they taken a point against Australia, ostensibly a simpler task, they would have qualified; for a few minutes here they had the last 16 in their sights but Mathew Leckie’s shock winner against the Danes sent the Socceroos through.

France win the group regardless even if this was a no-show prior to the introductions of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé. It is unlikely Didier Deschamps will regret resting most of his favoured starters but the inadequacy of their stand-ins will be noted by their rivals for the trophy.

Deschamps was ultimately punished for his nine changes. Only Raphaël Varane and Aurélien Tchouaméni remained from the team that beat Denmark and six of those deployed had not yet featured in Qatar.


It was a curious team full of square pegs in round holes, cobbled together in an effort to give players minutes: Eduardo Camavinga was asked to stand in at left back with Matteo Guendouzi in front of him while Axel Disasi, a central defender, was deployed on the right. The effect was lopsided and it smacked of opportunity for Tunisia, who could only have felt encouraged.

They warmed to the task and so did their support, who were noticeably quieter at the outset than at previous games. Perhaps the defeat to Australia had sapped their belief; either way it was a surprise given the history behind this match, which was the first time France had faced any of their former north African colonies since visiting Tunisia in 2010. When the sides met in Paris two years previously, the away fans had created such a hostile environment that the then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, requested no such fixture was repeated on French soil.

Camavinga began uncomfortably, giving possession away and then being nutmegged by Aïssa Laïdouni. It was no surprise that Tunisia, six of whose XI were born in France, looked the more coherent despite making half a dozen changes themselves. They briefly thought their early pressure had paid off in the eighth minute when Nader Ghandri diverted a devilish Khazri free-kick past Steve Mandanda, only for an offside flag to correctly curtail any celebrations.

Taking advantage of France’s evident weakness at full back, Tunisia utilised the flanks and swung in a steam of teasing deliveries throughout the opening period. Anis Ben Slimane saw a header deflected through to Mandanda, a survivor from that game back in 2008, and the goalkeeper was required to parry Khazri’s vicious half-volley from 25 yards. The attacks kept coming, even if clear openings did not, and Guendouzi’s badly misplaced pass in the vague direction of Camavinga spoke of Les Bleus’ discomfort.

In fairness, Camavinga had earlier produced a laudable piece of defending to deny Ghandri another sniff. That was the only moment of encouragement for France before half-time, beyond a swift counter that saw Kingsley Coman slice horribly wide when well placed.

The fear at that point for Tunisia was that they would not find a way through before Deschamps afforded his big guns a run out. They sought a penalty when Tchouaméni dived riskily on in Khazri but the Real Madrid player had taken the ball. Then Youssouf Fofana pulled up and allowed Khazri, receiving an opportunity he had not earned, to blaze over. It was a good chance; a relieved Fofana stayed down but was cleared to play on.

They need not have worried. Khazri had been everywhere and nowhere, frequently fluffing the simple and executing the near impossible. He was given a chance to run at the France defence after Ellyes Skhiri robbed a labouring Fofana, who stood still in expectation of a foul. Laïdouni worked the ball forward and Khazri, slaloming towards the 18-yard line, found the composure to slot coolly past Mandanda.

Now the Tunisian faithful went berserk; Khazri was replaced to a rapturous reception and it felt cruel that, moments later, Leckie’s goal meant a victory might not complete the job. Deschamps finally tasked Mbappé with denying Tunisia even that but their talisman could not rescue a muddled performance on his own. Within a few minutes he had badly overcooked a cross for Guendouzi and failed to find his fellow replacement Adrien Rabiot; between those aberrations, Griezmann joined him.

Next came Dembélé and it was inevitable Tunisia would now be required to hang on. He forced Aymen Dahmen into a rare, if comfortable, save from range. Mbappé worked Dahmen more exactingly and Dembélé fired wide. Remarkably, Griezmann seemed to have equalised at the death with a flashing volley that was overturned by VAR for offside after the final whistle had blown. Tunisia’s celebrations were bittersweet. – Guardian