Despite dominating for long stretches, Morocco succumbed to Tunisia's tactical discipline and attacking efficiency on Monday in the second Group C match.
Goals from Esperance teammates Khaled Korbi and Youssef Msakni were enough for Tunisia to stave off a Moroccan fight-back in a 2-1 win at the Angondje stadium in Libreville on Monday.
It was a game that saw tensions raised considerably once Houcine Kharja pulled one back for the Moroccans in the 86th minute.
Tunisia kicked off proceedings and though Morocco enjoyed more possession. The Carthage Eagles fired the initial warning shot when their first corner of the match was steered on target by captain Karim Haggui, only to be saved by Nadir Lamyaghri.
The Atlas Lions' reaction came six minutes later through a nifty one-two between Mbark Boussoufa and Marouane Chamakh, but the Arsenal striker saw his shot stopped by Aymen Mathlouthi. The Tunisian goalkeeper then made another brilliant save to deny Boussoufa what would have been a an excellent finish from a tight angle.
On 17 minutes, it was Zouhaier Dhaoudi’s turn to get into the act with a stunning left-footed strike that rattled Lamyaghri’s post. The opportunity came very much against the run of play, as the Moroccans’ superior passing was giving them the ascendancy in midfield.
Despite Morocco’s fine display, Tunisia scored the opening goal 10 minutes before halftime. Dhaouadi was fouled and Khaled Korbi’s ensuing free kick sailed past everyone, confusing the Moroccan goalkeeper who should have done better.
Eric Gerets began the second half by taking off an ineffective Oussama Assaidi for Adel Taarabt, who quickly made his impression on the match, testing Mathlouthi from just outside the penalty area. The game settled into a familiar pattern of Morocco dominating possession and Tunisia relying on counter attacks.
Another Atlas Lions substitute, Youssouf Hadji, came close to scoring what might have been the goal of the tournament on 66 minutes but his left foot failed him when he had Mathlouthi at his mercy.
Just when it seemed that Tunisia was conceding too much to its Maghreb rivals, in midfield one of its own substitutes, Youssef Msakni, collected the ball and shook off two Moroccan defenders before blasting in his country’s second goal of the match.
Gerets’ team pressed forward to reduce the deficit and got its first of the AFCON when an offside Ahmed Kantari squared a ball that Kharja scored on the half volley. The finish set off some nervy final moments for the Tunisians, who managed to hold on and collect three point to go level with Gabon at the top of Group C.
It will be a tough pill to swallow for the Atlas Lions, who now face the prospect of potential elimination against the co-hosts in their next encounter.