African Cup of Nations - Tunisia edge Morocco
Tunisia gave North African rivals Morocco a masterclass in the counter attack with a thrilling 2-1 Group C win in their African Cup of Nations opener in Libreville.
Despite dominating possession, Morocco fell victim to goals from Khaled Korbi and Youssef Msakni, as the Atlas Lions’ Europe-based stars were undone by a team of whom many turn out for domestic sides.
Skipper Houssine Kharja pulled one back for the Atlas Lions, who piled on the pressure in the latter stages but were held off by a stubborn defence from the Carthage Lions, who survived five minutes plus of injury time and some good late chances from their rivals - and a bad miss by Youssouf Hadji.
In the highest-quality game so far at these finals, the well-organised and technically-gifted Maghreb rivals played a game of cat and mouse, the European-heavy Moroccans asking most of the questions with wave after wave of attack in the first half.
They could not find a way past inspired keeper Aymen Mathlouthi though, the Etoile du Sahel number one – based in Tunisia, like many of his team-mates – saving efforts from Marouane Chamakh, Mbark Boussoufa and Badr El-Kaddouri.
Morocco also had two solid penalty appeals rejected, both involving Chamakh and Aymen Abdennour, with the latter first manhandling the former before kicking him in the face, the second offence spotted but deemed outside the area by South African referee Daniel Bennett.
But it was not just the Moroccans causing problems as the deep-lying Tunisians looked dangerous on the counter attack, Zouheir Dhaouadi hitting the post with a wicked swerving effort.
So when they took the lead on 33 minutes it was against the run of play but hardly surprising all the same.
Korbi’s delivery was just that – a delivery, not a shot – but the lofted, dipping ball caught the Moroccans flat-footed, while keeper Nadir Lamyaghri was deceived by the movement of Saber Khelifa, who tried to claim the goal himself but did not get a touch.
Morocco were briefly rattled, Amrabat giving the ball away but saved by Lamyaghri, but they soon took control of possession at least, Karim Haggui denying Boussafa with a last-ditch challenge and Belhanda driving just wide after a super turn away from Abdennour.
In the dying seconds of the half Chamakh almost beat Mathlouthi to a high ball, with the net result a goal kick even though the keeper got the final touch: Chamakh led suspiciously with his hand though, so a goal would have been an injustice.
The second half saw more of the same as the Moroccans continued to probe, with an added spark from half-time entrant Adel Taarabt, whose running and crossing caused real problems, also forcing a save from Mathlouthi with a vicious drive.
But they were toiling to break Tunisia down, so coach Eric Gerets responding by introducing a strike-partner for Chamakh in Hadji, younger brother of Morocco legend Mustapha.
Like Taarabt, Hadji had a swift impact, almost putting Chamakh through before blasting a shot over under pressure.
But, on 66 minutes, the Rennes forward was responsible for a villainous miss when – after taking down a long ball with a delightful touch reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp that left Abdennour for dead – he spooned a dreadful finish about five yards wide with just the keeper to beat.
It looked like it was not set to be Morocco’s night and, indeed, it was not.
With the Atlas Lions appearing to tire, and possibly disheartened by their continued profligacy, they were vulnerable to the counter-attack which Tunisia exploited in some style.
Sub Msakni’s first experience of the match was to be the recipient of a heavy foul but his second was a fabulous solo goal with a quarter of an hour left.
He had never scored for his country before but opened his account in some style, dribbling past three defenders before rifling a low shot inside the bottom left corner, via a slight deflection.
That should have put the tie to bed but Morocco showed great spirit to fight back, bombarding the Tunisia penalty box and deservedly equalising with four minutes of normal time left.
The goal was dubious though, as – after staying up following a set-piece - El-Kaddouri was offside when he headed the ball across the box for Kharja to finish with aplomb.
They deserved the break though and the latter stages – including five minutes added time – became a Moroccan onslaught as the normal good humour of this particular North African rivalry disintegrated thanks to some gamesmanship from Tunisia.
There were some great chances too as Kharja almost netted a spectacular second, showing great skill to work the space for a shot that fizzed just over, while defender Benatia headed wide from a cross by Amrabat.
But Tunisia held on, celebrating wildly at the whistle, and must now be group favourites with the match between Morocco and co-hosts Gabon on January 27 crucial for both sides.