Tunisia have set up a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarter-final clash with Madagascar after penalty shootout win over Ghana.
It was a tentative first half with neither side really asserting an iron grip on the match, though it was the Black Stars who looked most likely to spark the game into life after Kasim Nuhu struck the woodwork, but that was about the only clear goalscoring opportunity before the interval.
It livened up after the restart and Tunisia thought they had progressed past this knockout phase after Taha Yassine Khenissi opened the scoring, but a late Rami Bedoui own goal took the match to extra-time and eventually, penalties, with Ferjani Sassi scoring the winning spot-kick to secure a 5-4 win in the shootout for Tunisia.
It was a nervy affair at the Ismailia Stadium, but who were the winners and losers as Tunisia set up a quarter-final clash against Madagascar?
Winner: Wahbi Khazri
It was heartbreak for Tunisia fans when news of Khazri’s injury hit home after their fulcrum suffered a muscle injury during the nation’s last group match against Mauritania, and it was confirmed prior to the match that the former Sunderland player would be rested for the encounter.
He was, however, able to find a place on the bench, though expectations were high that he would not be able to make the pitch. That is, until Tunisia found themselves in desperate need of inspiration, fresh impetus and a rejuvenated optimism – cue the arrival of Khazri.
With the match heavily poised in the second half, and Tunisia really struggling to find any sort of rhythm or cohesion in the final third, Alan Giresse turned to his talisman, and upon Khazri’s introduction in the 68th minute, the Eagles of Carthage were transformed, offering far more of an attacking invention and purpose.
Within five minutes of Khazri being on the pitch, Tunisia had hit the woodwork and scored, with the balletic forward central to both those key moments.
Loser: Thomas Partey
Playing in an unfamiliar No 10 role for large spells of the match, the Atletico Madrid defensive midfielder was deployed, almost as a shadow striker, dovetailing just behind the lone centre forward in Jordan Ayew, and while he certainly showed glimmers of his elite-level quality with some neat touches and driving runs, his impact was massively wasted further up the pitch.
In Partey, James Kwesi Appiah has a combative, technical and very industrious central midfielder, who has the ability to dictate the tempo for Ghana and boss the middle of the park, so it makes little sense almost taking him out of the most active part of the pitch: the middle third.
During the opening 45 minutes Partey mustered just 15 touches, the second-least of any player on the pitch, which is an extraordinarily low number for a player of his ability. The 26-year-old has built a reputation for his powerful performances in the heart of Los Colchoneros’ midfield, and that is exactly what Ghana needed this evening: a dynamic holder capable of spearheading attacks from deep.
Winner: Taha Yassine Khenissi
Tunisia have finally scored a goal from open play, and while it took around 350 minutes of Afcon play to come to fruition, what an important goal it was from Taha Yassine Khenissi, whose right-footed effort took a massive deflection to break the deadlock.
Khenissi posed a frustrated figure for the majority of the match, as he was forced to feed from scraps in an isolated role as his teammates looked to sit back, frustrate Ghana and soak up pressure.
But with the match looking destined for extra-time, Khazri entered the fray and immediately upped the tempo for his nation. As he collected the ball on the right flank, an inspired back heel sent Wajdi Kechrida racing down the byline before his low drive found the path of Khenissi, who struck home – albeit it rather fortuitously – to fire Tunisia into an unexpected lead.
Loser: Victor Gomes
Not only was there an extraordinary lack of consistency with the brandishing of yellow cards from Victor Gomes, but the South African referee never really got a hold on proceedings this evening, with the big moment of contention coming just on the stroke of half time.
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As Andre Ayew gleefully celebrated what he thought was a legitimate goal in the dying embers of the first half, Gomes was quick to put whistle to mouth and disallow the goal for an alleged handball from Partey. On closer inspection the ball was nowhere near the hand of the Atleti midfielder, but, fortunately for the referee, he was in an offside position – this was a curious case of correct decision, wrong reason.
But it wasn’t just that controversial segment that has placed Gomes as a ‘loser’, as he was far too uncertain and, at times, erratic with his cards, showing yellow for slight touches, while letting others get away with high boots and fiery challenges.
Winner: Alain Giresse
Tunisia’s win has boiled down to man one and his tactical masterstroke: Alain Giresse. As the 120th minute struck the board, the Frenchman opted to channel his inner Louis van Gaal and substitute a fresh goalkeeper for the penalty shootout.
In the 2014 World Cup, the Dutchman famously brought on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen in the quarter-finals against Costa Rica, and that tactical adjustment bore fruit as the Central American nation missed two penalties and Oranje progressed to the semi-finals.
Well that same scenario unfolded this evening in Afcon, as Giresse made the audacious decision to take off Mouez Hassen, who had looked shaky throughout the match, for experienced shot-stopper Farouk Ben Mustapha.
The tactical tweak provoked agitation from Hassen, but Giresse was vindicated for his substitution as Mustapha went on to save the only penalty in the shootout, which ultimately sealed a quarter-final place.
Loser: Tunisia defending
With the Eagles of Carthage heading for a quarter-final date in regulation time, all they had to do was defend one final set-piece from Ghana, and that should have been the case as a routine delivery, without any real venom or whip, was floated into the box in injury time, but substitute Rami Bedoui awkwardly headed back across his goal and into his own net.
The equalising finish was, quite simply, calamity personified as it was Bedoui who was brought on to help sure up the Tunisian defence and waste time in the dying embers, while goalkeeper Mouez Hassen should never have been beaten from that range.
As the ball looped off Bedoui’s forehead there didn’t seem much danger as he failed to generate any real power on the header, and yet, Hassen, who was positioned horrendously, began to backtrack before throwing himself in the air, with a modicum of his glove not enough to keep the ball in play.