Algeria, a tournament favourite, find themselves in deep trouble in Group B after a 2-1 defeat to Tunisia in Franceville on Thursday night. They will need to beat a rampant Senegal in their final group game to stand a chance of reaching the quarter-finals.
Tunisia, often maligned for negative football characterised by the darker arts, produced one of their finest tournament displays in a surprisingly open Maghreb derby.
After containing a bright Algerian start, Les Aigles de Carthage, managed by Henryk Kasperczak, began to exploit their rivals’ suspect backline. Wahbi Khazri, the Sunderland forward who impressed as a substitute in Tunisia’s loss to Senegal, started here and was at the heart of a series of first-half openings.
Youssef Msakni claimed the man of the match award for a pacy, industrious performance between the lines. He has history against Algeria, having scored the sensational late winner against them in Afcon 2013.
Two goals after the break decided the contest. In the 55th minute, Aissa Mandi deflected a low Msakni cross into his own net. And then 15 minutes later, Algeria’s Faouzi Ghoulam badly misjudged a header back to his own keeper. Khazri raced clear only to be brought down by a desperate Ghoulam seeking to make amends. Though the foul appeared to begin outside the box, referee Bernard Camille awarded a penalty which Sliti Naim calmly converted.
The Desert Foxes had their moments, too, not least through the interplay of Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi and the muscular thrust of Islam Slimani. A delightful one-two between Mahrez and Slimani in the 23rd minute looked destined to end in a goal but the Leicester winger’s final shot proved was beaten away by Malek Asselah.
No one doubts Algeria’s talent going forward but it has long been compromised by dysfunction behind it. The manager, Georges Leekens, has only been in charge since October last year after his predecessor Milovan Rajevac was forced out by a disgruntled squad. Player power has now resulted in impotence: following this result and the 2-2 draw with Zimbabwe in their opening game, Algeria’s fate lies out of their hands.
During five minutes of injury time, Sofianne Hanni swept home a right-footed strike but Tunisia, marshalled at the back by the exceptional Aymen Abdennour, held out to leave them probably needing only a draw against Zimbabwe on Monday to secure a place in the last eight.
Watford’s Algerian midfielder, Adlène Guedioura, promised afterwards that the team still believes qualification is possible. “We’re going to go there with hope, even if it’s going to be a very small chance to qualify," he said. "But if we don’t react like that, it’s better to go home now. We want to go and finish with a good game, and a win against Senegal.”
The task against Senegal may be made a touch easier on account of Les Lions de la Teranga already having qualified. They swept to a 2-0 win over Zimbabwe in the later kick-off, Sadio Mane and Henri Saivet on the score sheet, confirming their status as the team to beat.