The whistles were deafening, drowning out every skerrick of doubt this crowd belonged completely, unconditionally, to Tunisia. A red vortex, a black hole threatening to suck Australia into Group D oblivion. But the Socceroos defied gravity at Al Janoub Stadium, blocked out – or fed off – the horns and hissing and beating drums, to make this must-win match their own and take three points at a World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
The key statistic before Saturday was that Tunisia have not won a single match from their past 30 after conceding first. And so it went that, after Mitchell Duke headed his country into the lead midway through the first half, the 1-0 lead was rendered unassailable.
In truth that was less a case of statistical symmetry and more one of Australia’s perseverance and dogged determination to win this war, this helter-skelter 90 minutes of fire and brimstone between two low-ranked teams wanting – needing – a win to stay relevant in the third and final group-stage fixtures.
The result ensures that is the case for Graham Arnold’s side, who are now second on three points with France and Denmark still to play on Saturday. How that plays out will have a big say in the permutations, but for now they have done everything in their power to rectify their opening-match failures and stay in calculations to reach the last 16 for the first time since 2006.
There is also something to say about the retention of Duke to lead the line, despite talk he may be less suited to a game like this than Jamie Maclaren or Jason Cummings. His goal aside – a smart back-to-goal header – the striker got under his opponents’ skin and scratched from the inside, winning a swag of duels and paying particular attention to Montassar Talbi.
In all the victory was hard-fought and deserved. It was also a scrap of breakneck pace and flesh on flesh, the ball at times a ping-ponging sidebar to the bustle of bodies. Aaron Mooy hit the ground with a thump under Dylan Bronn. Duke, under a crunching challenge from Talbi, looked to briefly dislocate his knee cap but limped on.
Aïssa Laïdouni, the same Aïssa Laïdouni who had slid with unbridled delight straight through Christian Eriksen four days ago, won a header from Craig Goodwin to similar ovation.
It all tested the boundaries of German referee Daniel Siebert and both sides pushed the envelope. Kye Rowles at times played a dangerous game – he also slogged one clearance into the crowd – and Jackson Irvine, hovering precariously on a yellow card from game one, erred close to the edge.
But the Tunisians, unsettled in the opening exchanges, pushed the envelope a little more and and conceded a number of free-kicks.
Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri had said he was unsurprised by the 4-1 scoreline in Australia’s opening loss to France. Perhaps he underestimated their opponents, but it became clear early on that throwing their weight around and exploiting errors was not a sufficient game plan.
Kadri made just one change, slotting in Naïm Sliti for Anis Ben Slimane and sticking with the 3-4-3 deployed with success against Denmark. They morphed into a back five when required and defended meanly. When Australia turned over possession, the counter-attack was fast.
Fran Karacic, Arnold’s only change from the 4-1 loss to France, required help at times marking the captain and talisman, Youssef Msakni, but offered forward movement on the right flank.
With 20 minutes played, a diagonal through ball opened up ample space, only for Rowles to chase Msakni all the way to the byline. Some time later Mohamed Dräger blasted a shot over the bar, then threw up his head in dissatisfaction. The fans cried out in disbelief.
Tunisia’s clearest opportunity arrived close to the break, when the brilliant Harry Souttar spectacularly denied Dräger when he thought he only had Mat Ryan to beat.
Ryan had the unenviable first-half task of manning Australia’s goal in front of the biggest concentration of chants and flags and flailing limbs. When another foray approached he rushed off his line, leapt high above the throng and came down with the ball, only to spill on impact, grabbing desperately under the rush of boots. Msakni took honours for the biggest miss in first-half stoppage-time, failing to bury a finish at point-blank range.
By that point Australia were already ahead, playing out from the back for the first time and Goodwin feeding Duke from the left flank – the first cross to find its target – before the frontman flicked the ball into the far corner and raced over to the stands to celebrate with his son.
If the first half belonged to Australia, the second very well could have been Tunisia’s. Ryan was called into action umpteenth times as the penalty was swarmed by white and red shirts.
Souttar, who stood tall throughout, cut off Eliyes Skhiri in sublime fashion as the latter bore down on goal. Tunisia was opting for route one. In truth, neither were especially brave in possession and the crossing was not always impressive but, with 20 minutes to play, substitute Maclaren’s was pinpoint. It raced along the carpet with intent and, had a sliding Mat Leckie made contact, the lead would have surely doubled.
As the minutes ticked down the stakes heightened. Laïdouni flattened Goodwin and went into the book for his troubles. Ferjani Sassi copped a late yellow card. The desperation reached a crescendo. The whistles were deafening – until they were snuffed out.