Tunisia won at the second time of asking but it was still not enough to send them through. This was the cruellest yet most honourable of exits and they will wonder how, having built on a creditable draw with Denmark by outplaying a second‑string France team, they will not be making their knockout stage debut. The answer lies in the defeat sandwiched between the two, an unexpected hiccup against Australia that ultimately meant they and their raucous contingent of supporters must head home.
For a joyful couple of second-half minutes they thought history was in the making. Wahbi Khazri had just scored the goal they deserved, crowning a relentless personal performance after slaloming through a misshapen and dozy bunch of France stand-ins, and the noise from three-quarters of the crowd had reached fever pitch. They would have been home and dry as things stood but then Mathew Leckie contrived an unexpected winner against the Danes, who failed to effect the turnaround Tunisia relied upon.
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At least they earned the points, beating France for the first time since 1971, although those would have been denied them too had VAR not intervened in an extraordinary finale. Didier Deschamps had rested nine of his starting XI and his team flickered only after the introductions of Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé.
When Griezmann converted a flashing volley with what seemed the final action, the referee, Matthew Conger, blowing for full-time seconds later, the value of finishers who can resolve a mess seemed clear. But VAR was still checking the goal and, after reviewing it on his screen, Conger disallowed it for offside. The players were obliged to reprise the final moments and this time Tunisia could celebrate, albeit with a sour taste.
“It’s our fault as we didn’t do what was necessary in the first two games,” Khazri said of their exit. “We have mixed feelings. We’re happy to beat France and we leave with our heads held high, but it’s still bitter as it would have been beautiful to have reached the round of 16.”
Khazri was just about modest enough to avoid pointing out he had not started those earlier games. This time he was pitched in at the outset and found himself at the heart of everything, often fluffing the simple and accomplishing the unlikely. He has always been that kind of player but moments like the run and cool finish past Steve Mandanda, facilitated by the excellent Ellyes Skhiri’s robbing of Youssouf Fofana, make the inconsistency worthwhile.
France contributed little until the cavalry showed up but, for Deschamps, this was simply an exercise in fielding a lineup that could give his star turns a rest. Eduardo Camavinga was deployed at left-back and Matteo Guendouzi jammed into an awkward role ahead of him; Axel Disasi was uncomfortable on the right of the defence while an attack of Kingsley Coman and Randal Kolo Muani never convinced. Potential future opponents, England included, might note the lack of depth their injuries have brought about.
Deschamps’s plan is for France to thrive on fresh legs when things get serious on Sunday. “I think we’ll see the benefit four days from now,” he said. “We can’t tick all the boxes. We were coming out of two high-intensity games and need to breathe fresh air. But we need to do better than we did, our opponent punished us and gave us a run for our money.”
Tunisia certainly did that, bombarding France from both flanks during the first half and seeing an early effort from Nader Ghandri disallowed. A wicked cross from Khazri, one of six France-born members of the side that started, created the chance; the former Sunderland forward later forced Mandanda, who also clutched a deflected header from Anis Ben Slimane, to parry a half-volley from range.
The 37-year-old Mandanda had been on the pitch back in 2008 when France hosted Tunisia in Paris to an atmosphere so hostile that Nicolas Sarkozy, the then president, requested they no longer played against their former north African colonies on home soil. A rematch took place in Rades two years later but France had faced neither Tunisia, Algeria nor Morocco since then.
Outfoxingthem this time meant Jalel Kadri, the Tunisia manager, could make a case for keeping his job. “I don’t know why you insist I resign,” he said to a journalist who asked whether he would step down. “My contract is based on objectives. The objective was not fulfilled but we have time to take the final decision and it will be up to the Tunisian federation to decide whether I have achieved the targets or not.”
Deschamps has met his first one in ensuring France top the group with their prize assets largely wrapped in cotton wool. “Now begins a second competition,” he said, and the impact of his rotation here will soon be understood.