Tunisia beat Madagascar 3-0 on Thursday to reach their first Afcon semi-final since 2004.
Madagascar have been the romantic story of this tournament but the minnows finally crashed out as they were unable to overcome the Eagles of Carthage, who put in a highly professional performance.
Goals from Ferjani Sassi, Youssef Msakni and Naim Sliti were enough to see Tunisia through, setting up a semi-final tie with Senegal.
Having just seen an opening goal rightly chalked off for offside, Tunisia knew they were getting close to cracking the Madagascan defence, which left more gaps as the minutes wore on. And although Tunisia were good value for their eventual lead, it still came in rather fortuitous circumstances, such has been Madagascar’s resilience in this tournament.
Tunisia worked possession to the edge of the Madagascan box in the 52nd minute with some precision long passing and neat interchanges, the ball eventually coming to the feet of Ferjani Sassi.
The midfielder opened his body and unleashed a shot to the goalkeeper’s right-hand side, but as Adrien Melvin started to shuffle across to make the save, the ball hit the backside of Thomas Fontaine to redirect it into his left corner.
There was nothing Adrien could do about it and although it likely won’t be the most gracious goal Sassi has ever scored, the 27-year-old put his nation on the road to the Afcon semi-finals. He won’t care one bit how that happened now.
Sassi may not care how his goal went in, but Fontaine certainly will.
Madagascar have been a glorious breath of fresh air at Afcon 2019 but this really was an unfortunate moment. In fact, it would have been rather comical had it not happened to the rank outsiders.
After putting in yet another resilient defensive performance during the first half against Tunisia, Madagascar were visibly rocking in the second half, finding themselves well and truly on the ropes.
Even so, it still took a moment of real misfortune to finally break their resistance, with Tunisia’s opener going in courtesy of Fontaine’s derriere.
It wasn’t graceful, it wasn’t pretty and Fontaine certainly won’t want to be reminded of it any time soon.
Wahbi Khazri rightly had a goal disallowed for offside just after half-time but if it had stood, you couldn’t have accused him of not earning it.
The former Sunderland man was, once again, the central hub to everything Tunisia did well in this match, dropping in to receive the ball, drifting wide, cutting inside, creating chances and getting shots off. All of that, and he still had time to make a match-high five tackles!
The likes of Sassi and Msakni will take the headlines for the goals, and why not? Still, Khazri – who had 58 touches of the ball during the game and grabbed a late assist for Naim Sliti’s goal – will know just how important he’s been to Tunisia reaching this stage, and just how much of a role he could play in them going even further.
Carolus Andriamahitsinoro has been a success story within a success story at Afcon 2019, grabbing two goals and assist and playing a key role in getting Madagascar this far.
Thursday, however, just proved to be a bridge too far for the 29-year-old forward. Andrea had his chances but all too often he took wild swipes at the ball or ran into dead ends when simple passes were readily available.
Andrea will look back on Afcon 2019 with pride, knowing he’s become the poster boy for a team making waves for football back in Madagascar.
But he may hold a slight twinge of regret at the fact he never quite turned up in the semi-final.
Youssef Msakni couldn’t really do much else to make you say “perfect captain’s performance” on Thursday.
It was he who brought the ball inside and grabbed the assist for the first goal, and it was he who was following up to make it 2-0, effectively ending the tie with plenty of time to spare.
Msakni played more key passes (3) and completed more dribbles (4) than any other player on the pitch on Thursday, carrying a real threat to the Madagascans and helping unlock their previously rock solid defence.
Msakni was withdrawn after 66 minutes with the semi-finals in mind, which he will now play a massive part in.
Tunisia won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004 but since then, they’ve failed to make it past the quarter-finals at every attempt… until now.
The likes of Senegal, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Nigeria would have undoubtedly been tougher opponents on paper for the Eagles of Carthage but at the same time, nobody wants to play the minnows. To lose against the underdogs is an embarrassment and you know you’re going into the game with 100% of the pressure on your shoulders.
But that didn’t seem to faze Alain Giresse’s side at all, with Tunisia putting in a dynamic, professional and efficient performance, putting Madagascar to the sword without ever really breaking a sweat.
Senegal, with the likes of Sadio Mane and Idrissa Gana Gueye, will be a monumental task in the semi-finals but for now, it’s time to celebrate for Tunisia as they break their quarter-final hoodoo.