DOHA, Qatar — Australia’s unlikely hopes of clinching a round-of-16 berth are not yet dead as they stunned Tunisia 1-0 at the Al Janoub Stadium to record their first win at the World Cup since 2010.
Looking to bounce back after a heavy defeat to France in their opening game of the group stage, the Socceroos found their nerve and took the lead through a Mitchell Duke header in the 23rd minute. It was a just reward for Australia, who looked much more like the assured and physical side that coach Graham Arnold has sought to build throughout this World Cup cycle.
Playing in what their local press had deemed the biggest game in their history after a 0-0 draw with Denmark put them in a strong position after matchday one, Tunisia were spurred to life by Duke’s opener and had the better of the game’s chances as play wore on. But, looking like they were feeling the weight of the occasion, they couldn’t find a way beyond Mat Ryan.
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1. Duke leads the way for Australia
Almost straight from kickoff, it was obvious that the high-stakes nature of the fixture was playing on the minds of both teams. Passes were mishit, first touches ricocheted away and the game was played with the kind of frenetic energy that can only be produced when both sets of players want to move the ball on as quickly as possible and not be the one who makes a mistake.
Looking to play on the front foot and largely control the territory battle during these exchanges, Australia were frequently able to work the ball in positions to send deliveries into the Tunisia penalty area in the early exchanges, only for the defense to get in the way at the vital moment.
Tunisia, conversely, was largely restricted to playing on the counter; although this allowed them the best opportunity of the opening 20 minutes when Issam Jebali found space on the right and cut the ball back to Youssef Msakni, only for the Tunisian captain to fluff his lines. Mohamed Drager had a long-range chance moments later, but couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and blasted several yards over the crossbar.
It was at this point that the largely Tunisian crowd raised its voice, sensing a shift in momentum towards the Eagles of Carthage, only for Duke to send them quietly again. Knocking down a long ball forward from keeper Ryan to Riley McGree, he sprinted forward to meet Craig Goodwin’s deflected cross and put his side ahead with a fine header.
All goals are vital, but this one was especially so. Tunisia had failed to pick up a single win across their past 30 matches when conceding first, and Australia needed a settler to ground themselves after the France defeat.
Effectively the avatar of Arnold’s concept of “Aussie DNA,” Duke’s energy, pressing and sheer combativeness gave his opponents issues throughout the first half — the striker at one point clashing with Hannibal Mejbri on the Tunisian bench. The work of McGree, who worked diligently to support his striker and pick up loose balls and layoffs, was also key as the Socceroos looked to move up the pitch.
Australia didn’t produce much in the way of attacking threat for much of the rest of the afternoon — a Jamie Maclaren cross that Mat Leckie couldn’t connect with late in the contest was their most notable — and produced just over half of Tunisia’s xG across the 90. But it didn’t matter.
2. Souttar stars as Australia’s defense bends but doesn’t break
After the shellacking his side suffered at the hands of France in their opening fixture, it was largely expected that Arnold would move to switch things up in the center of his backline, potentially bringing in one or both of veterans Milos Degenek and Bailey Wright to provide a stabilizing foundation.
But while the coach was forced to make one change in replacing Fran Karacic for the injured Nathaniel Atkinson at right-back, he opted to back young centre-backs Harry Souttar and Kye Rowles. And the former, in particular, came up big for his manager.
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In the 41st minute, as Tunisia began to open up late in the first half, the towering Stoke City defender hurled himself in front of an effort from Drager to deny what looked to be a certain goal: preventing a sucker punch just before half-time .
As Australia increasingly sat back and looked to hit on the counter, Tunisia continued to come in the second half. The Socceroos ran themselves ragged under the Qatari afternoon sun — a task made harder by much of the starting XI either being just six weeks into their A-League Men season and lacking match fitness or, in the cases of Souttar and Rowles, coming off long-term injuries.
Yet despite the fatigue creating inevitable breakdowns, they kept running and coming up with the ball when it mattered. Souttar’s late sprint back and slide tackle to close down the breakaway of Tunisian substitute Taha Yassine Khenissi exemplified the Socceroos’ desire and Ryan increasingly came up big as Tunisian found angles to goal when effort wasn’t enough.
3. Tunisia’s attacking issues put them in a hole
While Duke’s opening goal spurned them to life and Jebali looked a constant sort of danger every time he was able to get on the ball — especially when allowed to run at the Australia goal — Tunisia’s inability to break down an Australian defense that conceded four goals to France has them staring down the barrel of yet another World Cup group stage exit.
Be it through a lack of composure, desperate Australia defending or an inability to find the ball, the Eagles of Carthage consistently failed to produce high-quality efforts on goal and it took until the 72nd minute for them to force Ryan into a save when Msakni forced him to dive at his near post with a close-range blast.
Having done the hard work in a 0-0 draw against Denmark in their opening game only to slip up against a side many in their homeland had penciled in as a straightforward win, Tunisia now need a win against France to progress out of the group.
Depending upon the result of the game against Denmark later on Saturday evening, Didier Deschamps’ side might have already secured the top spot in the group by that point. But such is the sheer quality of Les Bleuseven with their rash of injuries, that even a French side operating in first or second gear still represents a mammoth challenge.
Tunisia: Dahmen 6, Talbi 6, Meriah 6, Bronn 5, Abdi 6, Laidouni 6, Skhiri 6, Drager 6, Msakni 5, Sliti 6, Jebali 7.
Subs: Sassi 6, Khazri 6, Khenessi 5, Kechrida 6.
Australia: Ryan 8, Behich 6, Rowles 6, Souttar 9, Karacic 6, McGree 7, Mooy 8, Irvine 6, Goodwin 7, Duke 8, Leckie 7.
Subs: Maclaren 6, Hrustic 6, Degenek 6, Mabil N/A, Baccus N/A.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Harry Souttar
Playing in just his third senior match since he ruptured an ACL in November 2021, Souttar was a pillar of strength at the back for the Socceroos and likely the difference between three points and one or even none.
WORST: Youssef Msakni
The Tunisia captain didn’t have the worst game by any stretch of the imagination, but his inability to find the net when his side desperately needed someone to step up will haunt him.
Highlights and notable moments
Duke rose high to head home a superb opener for the Socceroos.
This header by Mitchell Duke was *chef’s kiss* 😍🇦🇺 pic.twitter.com/ToVY3M8blf
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 26, 2022
And the Australian crowd back home enjoyed it a lot.
— Chip Callahan (@ChipCally) November 26, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Australian coach Graham Arnold: “I’m hugely proud of the boys. They showed Aussie fighting spirit. They were in their faces all the time and I’m sure they made the nation very proud. The other night we played against the current world champions and the boys showed the same effort today. When the doubters hate us, bring it on.”
Harry Souttar: “I could go through the whole team and say what an unbelievable job they’ve done. It’s a little bit of a different feeling from the other day [after the 4-1 loss to France]; just so, so happy. So delighted. We were hanging on for a little bit towards the end, the last 15, 20 minutes but I’m just so pleased. When that whistle went, the relief for all the hard work that we’ve put in so far and over the qualifications stages just came [to a head]”
Riley McGree: “Very close [to a complete 90-minute performance]. A clean sheet, a goal, and three points. It doesn’t really get much better than that. Now, we move our focus onto the next one. I’m still soaking it in. I’m sure everyone will be doing that tonight. I’m happy and proud; it’s a massive honor to play for this country and to get a result in the World Cup is even better.”
Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri: “It was a very tough match between two very tough teams. I think today we should have played to win. We still have one match to play and we will play with our hearts out.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
– This was just the fourth time that Australia scored first in a World Cup match. In those three previous games they were 1-1-1 (WLD).
– Duke became the second Australian to score a header at the World Cup, after Tim Cahill (2 — vs. Serbia in 2010 and Chile in 2014.)
– Tunisia are now 2-4-0 (WLD) when trailing at half-time, the last time they were trailing at half-time at a World Cup was in 2018 against Panama where they went on to win the game.
– This was Australia’s first clean sheet at a World Cup since 1974 vs. Chile.
– The result put an end to Australia’s 7-game winless streak at the World Cup, since their last vs. Serbia in 2010.
Tunisia: A match against the defending champions France awaits at the Education City Stadium at 6 pm local time, 10 am ET on Nov. 30. But they need a win to progress.
Australia: Australia take on Denmark at the Al Janoub Stadium at 6 pm local time, 10 am ET on Nov. 30 with a real chance to secure a place in the knockout round.