Tunisia keep neighbours Morocco at bay
Tunisia took the Maghreb derby honours today, a 2-1 defeat of Morocco putting them alongside Gabon at the top of Group C in the CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
The north African neighbours' last Nations Cup meeting came in the 2004 final won by Tunisia, who also denied Morocco qualification to the 2006 FIFA World Cup™. And the Carthage Eagles claimed the bragging rights again with goals in either half from Khaled Korbi and Youssef Msakni, with Houssine Kharja getting a dubious late consolation for Morocco.
Tunisia coach Sami Trabelsi said: "This was a precious victory that will help us. We played well as a team...but the competition is long, this is just one victory, we have lots of matches in front of us, I hope we can progress. We were better in defence than - when you look at the quality of players we have available - in midfield and in attack."
Captain Karim Haggui added: "We deserved to win, I hope our new generation of players will write their own history now."
Morocco coach Eric Gerets said that his side had to bounce back against co-hosts Gabon. "This is the Nations Cup, it's full of surprises, that's life, now we've got to show the mental strength we've displayed over the past year," said the Belgian. Our second match against Gabon is an all or nothing situation."
As promised Morocco coach Gerets kept faith with veteran keeper Nadir Lamyaghri who was returning after a lengthy lay off. The Belgian chose Arsenal's Marouane Chamakh to spearhead the attack alongside Oussama Assaidi, with Queen Park Rangers' Adel Taraabt on the bench.
The Tunisians were missing Auxerre-attached Issam Jemaa, top scorer in qualifying but sidelined with an ankle problem.
The match got underway with the L'Amitie stadium only half full, the other half having gone off to celebrate co-host Gabon's stirring 2-0 win over Niger in the first installment of this Group C double bill. Gerets' confidence in Lamyaghri was repaid as early as the eighth minute when the keeper's athletic dive denied Tunisia skipper Karim Haggui.
Down at the other end, Lamyaghri's opposite number Aymen Mathlouthi was up to the task of stopping Moroccan midfielder Mbark Boussoufa's shot from the right of the box. The two favourites to qualify - at least until Gabon's victory - were creating plenty of early chances, one of the better ones coming before the half hour was up when Zouhaier Dhaouadi struck from outside the box with only the post preventing Tunisia from taking control.
They did just that on 34 minutes when Korbi's dipping free-kick from distance sailed over the Moroccan defence to hit the inside of Lamyaghri's far upright and cross the line.
Morocco would have levelled before the break only for Younes Belhanda to shoot narrowly off target after some nimble footwork from the Montpellier man in front of Mathlouthi's goalmouth. Gerets made one switch at the restart, bringing on Taarabt for Assaidi in a bid to salvage something from this opening Cup run out and the QPR forward was quickly making his presence felt.
Gerets later introduced Youssef Hadji for Boussoufa and the Rennes striker soon had his head in his hands when after beautifully controlling a long lob in the area he shot wide. Morocco were getting plenty of the ball but the Tunisian backline marshalled by Haggui was holding firm.
On 75 minutes, second-half substitute Msakni bagged his first for his country when fending off Ahmed Kantari and then Badr El Kaddouri to slice the ball across the box and into Lamyaghri's far corner.
Morocco pulled one back with four minutes to go when Ahmed Kantari, who appeared well offside, crossed from the right for Kharja to convert - the Fiorentina midfielder had Tunisian hearts in their mouths again in injury time when shaving the crossbar.