Tunisia come from behind to take consolation victory

Nawaf Shukralla paid the free-kick in a dangerous position. Panama, desperately searching for the equaliser that would give them their first ever World Cup point, eagerly prepared to take the kick. As three of them stood huddled over the ball, with a minute left on the clock, Shukralla had his hands full dealing with the Tunisian players standing in the wall. Having used his vanishing spray to mark the spot where the players should stand in order to block the free-kick, said players continued to stumble over the line as they jostled for position, causing something of a delay. Eventually, the kick was taken, more than 90 seconds after its award and after the stoppage time allocated by the referee had expired. With the last real kick of the game, Édgar Bárcenas shot, and picked out Tunisian goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi. Mathlouthi received a free-kick after making the save, and his hoof up the field marked the end of the game and Panama’s tournament.

The match was a dead rubber, with both teams coming in winless and already eliminated, but neither side was going easy as they pursued a consolation victory. Tunisia started well, controlling possession early and largely keeping Panama out of the game. They had some chances, looking most dangerous when Naïm Sliti put in a dangerous low cross, but Fakhreddine Ben Youssef wasn’t quite able to latch onto it and the ball rolled harmlessly to Jaime Penedo. Sliti was heavily involved in the minutes that followed, attempting an acrobatic but incredibly ambitious aerial kick which trailed well wide of the target and another ambitious long shot which sailed harmlessly into the stands. For the most part, however, Tunisia’s domination of proceedings didn’t result in too many opportunities.

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Panama’s players celebrate after opening the scoring through Yassine Meriah’s own goal. Panama lost the lead and lost their third game at their debut World Cup, but their fans were still very vocal and they celebrated loudly after the first goal.

Panama’s first real attack came after the first half hour, and it culminated in the game’s first goal. It began with a long shot, which Mathlouthi could only parry back into a dangerous spot. Román Torres found the ball and had his shot blocked, and it rebounded to young winger José Luis Rodríguez some distance from the goal. Looking to get closer, Rodríguez played a one-two with Torres and shot from the edge of the area. Mathlouthi had it covered before the deflection. The ball slammed into Yassine Meriah, and the goalkeeper was in no position to prevent the diverted shot from finding the back of the net. Panama had the lead, and their always vocal fans were going crazy.

Tunisia recovered well. Ben Youssef nearly scored when he got on the end of Oussama Haddadi’s cross from the left, but he couldn’t quite get enough on his header to put it on target. Haddadi created another chance a few minutes later, picking out Wahbi Khazri with a nice looping ball into the box. Khazri skied it, sending the volley flying into the stands. Khazri had two more chances in rapid succession as the half came to a close, forcing a diving save from Penedo, collecting the rebound and testing the veteran goalkeeper once again. Panama survived, just.

The equaliser came shortly after the break after a very nice move was started by Sliti just outside the box. He turned his man expertly before laying a pass to Khazri, whose ball into the box couldn’t have been any better for Ben Youssef. The big attacker slammed it home from close range, leaving Penedo with no chance as his thunderous shot found its mark. Tunisia continued to push, and they had another chance moments later when Khazri was fouled on the edge of the box and the ball fell to the onrushing Ben Youssef. He put the shot on target, but Penedo made an excellent save to keep the teams level.

The game had begun to open up, and Panama had a great chance when Aymen Mathlouthi fumbled a cross intended for Luis Tejada, presenting Édgar Bárcenas with a golden opportunity just inside the box. His volley was well-hit and on target, but Mathlouthi managed to get in the way. The ball went through his hands, hit him square in the face and bounced away. Mathlouthi was left on the ground, raising concerns that an outfield player would need to stand in (with two of Tunisia’s three keepers already out injured) but he eventually got up and continued. Then Tunisia went ahead.

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Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (left) levels the scores early in the second half. Ben Youssef’s goal put Panama on the back foot, and the Eagles of Carthage went ahead soon after.

Haddadi and Anice Badri combined dangerously on the left wing, and the left-back had the space to play the ball across goal. Penedo couldn’t do anything to stop Haddadi’s cross, and the ball found Khazri on the back post. It would have taken a supreme effort for Khazri to miss the chance from such close range. Now with a one-goal lead, the Eagles of Carthage began to pass the ball around with confidence, and there didn’t seem to be any way back into the game for the Panamanians.

For a moment, Panama thought they’d scored when Bárcenas hit a shot straight into the top corner, but Tejada had fouled Meriah in the build-up and the goal didn’t stand. They had more good chances to equalise, with Bárcenas providing some dangerous crosses from the right wing and Luis Ovalle playing a ball which four Panamanian attackers had the chance to latch on to (none of them did). None of their opportunities came to anything. As the game wound down, Tunisia brought on Ahmed Khalil and Bassem Srarfi, whose introductions ensured that, remarkably, every member of Tunisia’s 23-man squad featured at some point in their three matches. They left early, but at least everyone had a go.

Saransk – Mordovia Arena
Panama 1 (Meriah 33 og)
Tunisia 2 (F Ben Youssef 51, Khazri 66)
Referee: Nawaf Shukralla (Bhr)
Panama (4-5-1): Penedo – Machado, R Torres (Tejada 56), Escobar, Ovalle; Bárcenas, Godoy, Gómez, Ávila (Arroyo 80), Rodríguez; G Torres (Cummings 46).
Tunisia (4-3-3): Mathlouthi – Nagguez, Meriah, Bedoui, Haddadi; Chaalali, Skhiri, Sassi (Badri 46); F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Srarfi 89), Sliti (Khalil 76).

Top 5
1. Naïm Sliti (Tunisia)
Sliti was in excellent form on the left wing, slipping past defenders, displaying exemplary control and balance and creating some dangerous opportunities with his work on the ball. He was heavily involved in Tunisia’s best attacking play, and he played a key role in their equaliser with a brilliant turn.
2. Wahbi Khazri (Tunisia)
Khazri finished the game with a goal and an assist, and he caused plenty of problems for the Panamanian defence with his excellent positioning and brilliant passing. He was dangerous when he won the ball close to goal, and capped off a good tournament with an excellent performance.
3. Oussama Haddadi (Tunisia)
Haddadi came in at left-back and immediately looked more solid than the man he replaced, Ali Maâloul. He made some great attacking contributions down the left, including the assist for Khazri’s goal and a number of dangerous crosses.
4. Édgar Bárcenas (Panama)
Bárcenas looked like Panama’s most lively player with his work in the wide areas. He drifted from side to side, put in some good crosses and fired off some shots which really tested Mathlouthi. His long shot into the top corner was a stunning strike, even if the goal didn’t count.
5. Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef’s combination with Khazri and Sliti gave Panama plenty of issues, and he used his size and pace to good effect in picking up a goal and very nearly finding more. He was good in the air and on the ground, and looked very dangerous.

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