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Tunisia will never get a better chance to reach World Cup knockouts

16:42 GMT 26/11/2022
Skhiri, Hannibal, Tunisia fans
The Carthage Eagles completely blew it when the World Cup Last 16 beckoned

Tunisia will never again get a better opportunity to reach the Last 16 of the World Cup.

They’d done the hardest part of their first two matches at the tournament—holding Denmark in their opener—but it was absolutely imperative they followed that up with victory over Australia on Saturday.

Instead, the Carthage Eagles fell to a limp 1-0 defeat, with Mitchell Duke scoring the only goal of the game as it was Australia, instead, who were left celebrating a revival in their World Cup prospects.

Even before France take to the field against Denmark on Saturday evening, Tunisia are now up against it to progress.

They have one point from their opening two matches, having failed to find the net, and now face the reigning champions where only a win would give them a chance of progression.

It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s a really tricky situation considering the strong position Tunisia had put themselves in after the draw with the Danes.

The Eagles appeared to have everything set up to succeed at this tournament.

The pseudo-support lent by travelling fans, the extensive Tunisian diaspora in Qatar and locals keen to lend their weight behind an Arab side had made the North African team’s matches feel like a home game, while the team themselves had performed admirably in their draw with the dark horses of Denmark.

It’s relatively rare that African teams face sides below them in the FIFA World Rankings at major tournaments, but it’s imperative they take the opportunities presented to them—such as how Senegal defeated Qatar on Friday.

Australia, ranked 42nd in the world, were in Pot Four heading into the group stage, and considering Tunisia could have been pitted against Canada or Costa Rica, for example, they can be reasonably happy after being paired with the Socceroos.

Similarly, while African sides have struggled against European or South American teams at the tournament, Asian or North American opponents have struggled against continental sides.

Of Africa’s last 10 victories at the tournament, six have been against opponents from AFC or CONCACAF.

Australia specifically also appeared vulnerable, having been torn apart by France—amidst some naïve defending—in their tournament opener.

All things considered, this was a golden opportunity to secure a World Cup victory and to take control of the group ahead of France’s meeting with Denmark.

Yet Tunisia again drew a blank—repeating the toils of 1998 by failing to score in their opening two matches—with Youssef Msakni taking six shots in an increasingly desperate attempt to salvage the contest.

Tunisia’s defence were ponderous and unadventurous when in possession, while the midfield struggled for penetration and invention. The likes of Aissa Laidouni and Ali Abdi appeared to fade as the contest wore on, and were unable to match the intensity and determination of their opener.

Perhaps Ferjani Sassi and Wahbi Khazri—both introduced in the second half—could have created more if they’d been started, while Hannibal Mejbri, who could have provided a spark, was inexplicably left on the sidelines.

Tunisia must now defeat the French in order to progress. Stranger things have happened, but very rarely, and never before for the Carthage Eagles, who may never again get a better chance to progress to the Last 16.