Tunisia shock France much changed thanks to Wahbi Khazri but go out anyway

Tunisia won on the second request, but it still wasn’t enough to get them through. It was the cruellest but most honorable outing and they will wonder how, having built on an honorable draw with Denmark by beating a second team from France, they will not make their debut in the round of 16. The answer lay in the defeat sandwiched between the pair, an unexpected setback against Australia that ultimately meant they and their boisterous contingent of supporters had to go home.

For a few happy minutes in the second half, they thought history was being made. Wahbi Khazri had just scored the goal they deserved, capping a relentless personal performance after slaloming through a misshapen, sleepy group of French substitutes, and the noise from three quarters of the crowd had reached fever pitch. They would have been home and dry as things stood, but Mathew Leckie invented an unexpected winner against the Danes, who failed to pull off the turnaround Tunisia were counting on.

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At least they earned the points, beating France for the first time since 1971, although they too would have been denied had VAR not intervened in an extraordinary final. Didier Deschamps had rested nine of his starting XI and his side only faltered after the introductions of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé.

When Griezmann converted a flashing volley with what appeared to be the final action, with referee Matthew Conger huffing for full-time seconds later, the value of finishers capable of resolving a mess seemed clear. But VAR were still checking the goal and, after reviewing it on their screen, Conger disallowed it for offside. The players were forced to retake the last moments and this time Tunisia was able to celebrate, but with a bitter taste.

“It’s our fault because we didn’t do what was necessary in the first two games,” Khazri said of their departure. “We have mixed feelings. We are happy to beat France and we leave with our heads held high, but it’s still bitter because it would have been nice to have reached the round of 16.

Khazri was about modest enough to avoid pointing out that he hadn’t started those previous games. This time it was thrown from the start and found itself at the heart of it all, often puffing out the simple and accomplishing the improbable. He’s always been that kind of player, but moments like running and finishing cool past Steve Mandanda, aided by the stealing of Youssouf Fofana by the excellent Ellyes Skhiri, make the inconsistency worthwhile.

Wahbi Khazri gives the advantage to Tunisia.
Wahbi Khazri gives the advantage to Tunisia. Photography: Marko Đurica/Reuters

France contributed little until the cavalry showed up but, for Deschamps, it was simply an exercise in fielding a formation that could give his star a rest. Eduardo Camavinga was deployed at left-back and Matteo Guendouzi stuck in a troublesome role in front of him; Axel Disasi was uncomfortable on the right of defense while an attack from Kingsley Coman and Randal Kolo Muani never convinced. Potential future opponents, including England, might note the lack of depth their injuries have caused.

Deschamps’ plan is for France to thrive on new legs when things get serious on Sunday. “I think we’ll see the benefits in four days,” he said. “We can’t tick all the boxes. We were coming out of two high intensity games and we needed to breathe some fresh air. But we have to do better than we did, our opponent punished us and gave us our money’s worth.

Tunisia certainly did, bombarding France from both sides in the first half and seeing an early effort from Nader Ghandri disallowed. A wicked cross from Khazri, one of six French-born members of the team that started, created the opportunity; the former Sunderland striker then forced Mandanda, who also grabbed a deflected header from Anis Ben Slimane, to parry a half-volley from distance.

Mandanda, 37, was on the pitch in 2008 when France hosted Tunisia in Paris in such a hostile atmosphere that then-president Nicolas Sarkozy demanded they no longer play against their former North African colonies on their soil national. A rematch took place in Radès two years later but France had not faced Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco since then.

Wahbi Khazri

This time around, surprising them meant Jalel Kadri, the Tunisia coach, could make the case for keeping his job. “I don’t know why you insist that I resign,” he told a reporter who asked him if he wanted to step down. “My contract is based on objectives. The objective has not been reached but we have time to take the final decision and it will be up to the Tunisian federation to decide if I have reached the objectives or not.

Deschamps met his prime by ensuring France topped the group with their assets largely wrapped in cotton. “Now begins a second competition,” he said, and the impact of his rotation here will soon be understood.

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