With the reigning world champions up against every expert’s pick for dark horses in Group D’s other outing, this was always going to be billed as the battle of its also-rans, in its rightful place as first up and firmly on Saturday’s undercard. But if either Tunisia or Australia could beat the other, they would have a good chunk of the points required to have a shot at a surprise last-16 spot, and would only need a result against their European rivals to sneak in.
Tunisia started the day in the stronger position but, courtesy of Mitch Duke’s deft first-half header, Australia ended it in the ascendancy. Their World Cup 2022 campaign was always likely to come down to this specific game and by just about edging it, Graham Arnold’s side know that a win against Denmark will see a limited but organised group of players emulate 2006’s “golden generation” by reaching the knockout stages.
That may still be a tall task but it is no taller than Tunisia’s. The Eagles of Carthage impressed in holding Denmark to a point earlier this week but now have to beat France – and perhaps beat them handsomely – in order to have any hope of extending their stay in Qatar.
Scoring a goal would help. Despite mounting a spell of desperate late pressure, they rarely looked like opening their account for the tournament.
Just as against Denmark in Education City on Tuesday, Tunisia’s travelling support took up the majority of the tickets on offer, effectively turning the Al Janoub into a home ground. Small pockets of green and gold were vastly outnumbered in the stands but Australia would not be outgunned on the pitch, where, just as against France, they made the faster, stronger start.
The scrappy initial stages found a brief moment of fluency as Riley McGree’s ball out left found Craig Goodwin in space. Australia’s goalscorer against the world champions would turn creator, but not without the assistance of a heavy deflection on his cross that sent it bouncing into the ground and up towards the head of Duke. An expertly judged flick carried the ball beyond Aymen Dahmen.
Tunisia had struggled for openings of their own and their palpable frustration threatened to boil over when substitute Hannibal Mejbri, the Manchester United youngster on loan at Birmingham City, took offence to Duke staying down after an aerial duel and threw a ball at his head. Referee Daniel Siebert did not see fit to show a card –instead settling for both players shaking hands – but this remained a combative, physical contest.
The Arab Cup finalists would have gone in level at half-time had they made something of two excellent chances just before the break. The first fell to Mohamed Drager, who fed off the scraps of a dying counterattack but saw his shot heroically blocked by Aberdeen-born Harry Souttar. The Stoke City centre-back could only watch, though, as Tunisia’s captain Youssef Msakni turned a clear-cut opportunity wide from mere yards out.
That late chance aside though, Tunisia had mustered nothing of any quality. A change of shape and system at half time, with Drager replaced by Ferjani Sassi, brought a little extra spark but none of the character and energy shown while fighting for a share of the spoils with Denmark. Australia were comfortable and still waiting to concede a shot on target when Mathew Leckie came within inches of doubling their lead.
A tantalising low cross by Jamie Maclaren was almost converted by the former Hertha Berlin winger, sliding in the far post after an Australia breakaway, only with slightly too much on the ball for him to reach it in time. Tunisia still did not have enough about themselves to fashion as clear an opportunity, their best perhaps falling to Khazri at close range. Mat Ryan, the one-time Brighton goalkeeper, held on.
A first World Cup win since 2010 was eventually seen out, secured by some solid rearguard action as well as the finesse of Duke’s finish. That was perhaps the one moment that was more poetic than prosaic in what at times threatened to become a slugfest, but this was a reminder that the group stages of a World Cup are just as much about the rough and tumble as they are the more refined.