Andreas Cornelius lay on the ground in utter disbelief. The FC Copenhagen striker has a lot of experience with scoring; with his previous club, Trabzonspor, he scored 15 times in 37 appearances.
So, as a deflected ball floated right in front of him, with no goalkeeper to beat, and only a shocked Tunisia defender to his right, he confidently dove through the air, heading a ball from point-blank range into the goal.
Cornelius heard the unfortunate clink of the post, the heavy thump of a goal-line clearance, and eleven sighs of relief. He buried his head in the ground before getting back up and searching for another game-winner.
Cornelius’ blunder could very well cost Denmark a spot in the late knockout rounds. Tunisia was supposed to be an easy team to beat, a quick three points that would help them compete with France on Saturday. But without Cornelius’ goal and a win, contending with France, Tunisia, and Australia will get even harder going into the second matchday.
Tunisia shocks Denmark with a fiery performance at the World Cup
For a fair bit of time, Tunisia looked like it would win the game instead of drawing it. Tunisia had a disallowed goal early in the game, and Kasper Schmeichel was called into action multiple times. Issam Jebali nearly chipped Schmeichel at the end of the first half, but the Leicester keeper’s outstretched hands kept his clean sheet intact. Tunisia was energetic, fired up by the surprising amount of traveling fans. Constant pressing forced the Danish backline out of balance, and Tunisia won the battle for possession.
Yet, momentum switched sides for the final half. Fatigue caught up with a Tunisian team that waited until the 67th minute to make a substitution. Denmark physically fought Tunisia off the ball, wearing down the midfield and weaving beautiful passes together. Aymen Dahmen had to make the save of his life when he faced a powerful Christian Eriksen shot, and Andreas Skov Olsen had his goal ruled out due to a close offsides call.
Denmark fought until the last second. The Danish Dynamite pressured Yassine Meriah into an accidental handball. The referee nearly gave a penalty to the Danes, but upon a VAR check, he ruled that the handball was accidental. Tunisia held on until the last second, meaning it gets a big advantage going into Saturday’s clash with Australia. Tunisia’s sterling defensive performance(their first clean sheet at the World Cup since a 1978 draw with West Germany) helped them to a point and a better standing at the World Cup.
Khazri left on the bench
One of the biggest surprises at the Education City Stadium was not the tens of thousands of Tunisia fans in attendance. Nor was it the fact that the Eagles of Carthage held a top-10 country to a 0-0 scoreline. It was the fact that Montpellier striker Wahbi Khazri didn’t lead Tunisia into battle.
Khazri is Tunisia’s second-most prolific Tunisian goal-scorer in history. Furthermore, he is the most prolific out of all active Tunisian players. However, Khazri hit somewhat of a rough patch going into the World Cup. Khazri failed to score for Tunisia since January. His last club goal came back in August.
Khazri is a very dangerous player. He’s a smooth dribbler and silky playmaker, and a consistent finisher. He can score from long range as he did for Saint-Etienne against Metz. Even at 31 years old, he’s still pretty consistent. He’s the guy you ask for when you want a goal.
It’s why many Tunisian fans were baffled when manager Jalel Kadri started Odense striker Issam Jebali and Hannibal Mejbri over Khazri. Jebali ended up missing a big chance when his chip met Schmeichel’s fingertips, and Hannibal only had four touches in 15 minutes.
In general, Tunisia’s attack was sluggish. Simon Kjær, Andreas Christensen, and Joachim Andersen thoroughly shut down the three attackers. Despite being 6’1 and 185 pounds, Jebali lost 10 duels to the three defenders. The Eagles of Carthage couldn’t get anything to their attackers through the air, forcing them to battle through a sea of red.
Tunisia will need Khazri’s finishing and strength as they set up a do-or-die matchup with Australia.
Tunisia’s midfield is its key to success
Tunisia doesn’t have bona fide stars. Of course, it has the criminally underrated Wahbi Khazri. However, there is not a true superstar that plays for Tunisia. No Riyad Mahrez for Algeria, nor Achraf Hakimi for Morocco. So, it is only natural that Tunisia’s best quality isn’t one player. Rather, it could be four.
The solid midfield of Caen’s Ali Abdi, Ferencvaros’s Aissa Laidouni, Koln’s Ellyes Skhiri, and Luzern’s Mohamed Drager was unstoppable during the first half, and it was why Tunisia didn’t give up a goal in the second half.
They provided defensive stability. The four combined for 10 of Tunisia’s 15 tackles and had the majority of clearances during the match. They were also responsible for winning possession and creating momentum. When Tunisia’s defenders cleared away a dangerous ball, the four-man midfield posed a considerable threat on the counterattack. They should be even more dangerous when they face Australia.
FiveThirtyEight rates Tunisia’s chances of making the round of 16 at 33%, just above Australia’s at 31%. Tunisia getting a point off of Denmark will be huge, especially as they can rise to four points after their second matchday.
Tunisia will surely be the favorite to beat the Aussies on Saturday. Excluding Australia’s thrilling win over Peru, Australia hasn’t played anyone outside of Asia since the 2018 World Cup. Australia suffered losses to Japan and Saudi Arabia in 2022, but outside of those two fixtures, they enter Qatar undefeated. Tunisia can use its relentlessness and unpredictability to spring a surprise on the Socceroos, but neither Tunisia nor Australia can jump to conclusions in what promises to be a hard-fought matchup.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Xinhua
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