SARANSK, Russia – Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri and Fakhreddine Ben Youssef ensured their nation’s World Cup slump wouldn’t enter a fifth decade.
Khazri’s hard, rising shot in the 66th minute lifted Tunisia to a 2-1 triumph over Panama on Thursday night. It came about 15 minutes after the Rennes striker’s pinpoint pass produced Ben Youssef’s equalizer on a redirection off of his right instep.
“We wanted to snatch the victory and I wanted to score and I did,” Ben Youssef said. “This is great day for Tunisia.”
Panama is still looking for a maiden World Cup victory – or draw, for that matter. But it took its first ever lead in World Cup play in the 33rd minute through an own-goal when Jose Luis Rodriguez’s hard, left-footed shot deflected off of Tunisia’s Yassine Meriah.
Both Group G teams were already eliminated going into the match. Tunisia hadn’t won a World Cup game since a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978. The Carthage Eagles then failed to win any of their next 13 World Cup matches, a streak that ended in somewhat expected fashion.
“When we landed in this group we knew very well that our best hope was to come third in this group,” Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul said.
Tunisia looked more competitive in losses to England and Belgium than Panama. Tunisia nearly earned a draw with England, but lost on a late goal by Harry Kane.
Tunisia also has more accomplished club professionals in its squad, but it was missing several players because of injuries.
In addition to dealing with the absence of defender Dylan Bronn, Tunisia had to start 33-year-old third-choice goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi because its other keepers were injured.
“Thanks to our goalkeeper, we didn’t concede many goals and we got the three points,” Maaloul said. “This is what matters.”
Statistically, Panama was the worst performer in this World Cup, but coach Hernan Gomez took issue with one reporter suggesting his team was the worst in tournament.
“Please don’t call us the worst team. We are not the worst team. We are a team that is learning and growing,” Gomez said. “You need to respect our team much more. You cannot call us the worst team. That is a lack of respect.”
The first two goals of the match were milestones of sorts in the World Cup, which dates to 1930.
The goal that gave Panama a 1-0 halftime lead was the 50th own-goal in all World Cups.
Meriah had turned his body to block Rodriguez’s shot and ended up sending it inside the far post after Mathlouthi had already started moving the other way.
The goal came against the run of play. Tunisia dominated the match with 64-percent possession and finished with 15 shots to Panama’s nine.
But it didn’t take long for Tunisia to equalize on what was somewhat of a World Cup milestone, the 2,500th goal in the history of the tournament, which dates to 1930.
Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres helped set up the opening goal with a composed, accurate pass from the top of the area back and toward the middle of the field to Rodriguez.
In the second half, however, he was forced out of the game with an apparent left leg injury after getting tangled up with Khazri as the two pursued the ball near the Panama penalty area.
He limped off the field after the game, and it remains to be seen how it affects his availability when he returns to the MLS.
The victory provided a measure of vindication for Maaloul, who led the team to the World Cup by infusing his lineups with younger players.
He didn’t directly address a question about his coaching future after the match, but has defended his record – citing recent qualification to the World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations – and said the position means a lot to him.
“We had to face Belgium and England. The Tunisian squad gave a good performance,” Maaloul said. “My players played their hearts out in all three performances.”
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