The last match of group play at the World Cup did not affect any permutations of the knockout round, but Tunisia left Russia on a positive note Thursday in Saransk, rallying to defeat Panama 2-1 to claim third place in Group G.
Having been eliminated from contention with losses to England and Belgium in their first two group matches, the final match played at Mordovia Arena was also a dead rubber. Both teams, however, engaged in more positive play than their heavyweight brethrens in Kaliningrad, who played out a cagey 1-0 Belgium victory with overturned rosters.
Fakrheddine Ben Youssef and Wahbi Khazri scored 15 minutes apart in the second half for the Eagles of Carthage, who ended a 13-match winless spell (0-4-9) in World Cup play that dated back to a 3-1 victory over Mexico in 1978 in their maiden match. Tunisia scored five goals in its three matches after entering Russia with eight in 12 previous World Cup contests.
Panama scored via a first-half own goal from Tunisia defender Yassine Meriah, the ninth own goal of the tournament. While the Canaleros technically finished last among the 32 teams in the field with a minus-nine goal difference, they were well-received throughout in their first World Cup appearance.
The 11 goals they conceded, though, were the most of any team in group play since Saudi Arabia shipped 12 in 2002. Panama’s heaviest loss, though, a 6-1 hiding by England was better than the Green Falcons’ 8-0 demolition by Germany 16 years prior.
Panama’s goal came in the 33rd minute as Jose Rodriguez and Gabriel Torres worked a 1-2 at the top of the penalty area. Rodriguez had a full step to shoot and used it, letting fly with a left-footed effort that clipped off the extended leg of Meriah and wrong-footed keeper Aymen Mathlouthi as he watched it bound into the net on his wright.
Tunisia equalized with a well-taken goal on 51 minutes. Naim Sliti carried into the top of the penalty area and played a pass on his right to Khazri, who slid a perfect cross into the middle that Ben Youssef stroked home with ease for his sixth international goal.
Ben Youssef nearly had a brace when referee Nawaf Abdullah Shukralla played the advantage after Khazri went tumbling to the pitch just above the penalty area, but Panama keeper Jaime Penedo did well to get his right leg to Ben Youssef’s shot to send it over for a corner.
The Eagles, though, would get that go-ahead marker in the 66th minute with another quality goal. Oussama Haddadi skipped into the penalty area on the left after being sent through by Sliti, and once Penedo came out to challenge him, he slid a cross to Khazri, who had an easy finish from three yards into the empty net.
Edgar Barcenas had an equalizer properly chalked off in the 73rd minute because Luis Tejada fouled Meriah off the ball at the top of the penalty area, causing him to lose possession before Barcenas lashed a shot from the top of the area inside the right post.
Tunisia used all three of its keepers at the World Cup, with No. 3 Mathlouthi pressed into action due to injuries suffered by Farouk Ben Mustapha and Mouez Hassen.