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Africa: Africa Cup of Nations
Stade Omnisport de Limbe
0 - 1
(0 - 0)
X W. Khazri (77)
I. Koné (48), E. Toure (87)

Skhiri handball penalty proves difference in Tunisia's controversial loss to Mali

By Peter Vice   @ViceytheSS

Three Bundesligists played from the start at a highly-anticipated encounter in Limbe on Day Four of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. 

Diadie Samassekou (Hoffenheim) and Amadou Haidara (Leipzig) actually started together in a midfield double-six set-up for Les Aigles of Mali.

In a match that did feature some controversy, the Malian Eagles and its two Bundesliga midfielders prevailed over Ellyes Skhiri (Köln) and Tunisia 1-0.
Ellyes Skhiri.
Ellyes Skhiri.Photo: GEPA Pictures/Sven Sonntag
German football enthusiasts got the opportunity to watch Amadou Haidara and Diadie Samassekou play in a midfield partnership on Wednesday afternoon as the two top-tier players shared the six slot for Mohamed Magassouba's Malian Eagles. As if this didn't constitute enough of a treat, the tandem squared off against a Tunisian 3-4-3 with one of Bundesliga's best midfielders, Ellyes Skhiri of 1. FC Köln. Skhiri was recently honored by his F.A. as the "Tunisian footballer of the year".

As has been the case with many opening group stage matches, Sunday's Group F showdown began in a rather cagey fashion. Most every team at the tournament are still finding their level and learning how to best operate with each other. One could definitely accord the opening 45 to the Malians, but most of their chances game on set-piece plays. One could discern based on the execution level that the team has not been training together for long. The Tunisian "Eagles of Carthage" were able to supply some optically pleasing build-up play, yet did not get a single shot on target during the first half.

Only seconds after the restart, Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe judged that Skhiri had handled a ball in the Malian box. Ibrahima Koné of Norwegian club Sarpsborg 08 FF stepped up to convert the spot kick two minutes later. The game's opening goal opened up the match significantly. The Carthaginians definitely woke up and pressed hard for the equalizer. As. Etienne striker Wahbi Khazri Malian keeper Ibrahim Bosso Mounkoro into a brilliant save with a gorgeously taken free kick in the 56th. 

Seconds later, Skhiri had his chance to redeem himself from the ensuing corner. The long-time Domstädter regrettably headed just wide of the post. The Carthaginians kept the pressure on and were even awarded their own handball penalty in the 77th. Keeper Mounkoro guessed correctly and stopped a rather poor shot from captain Khazri to preserve the scoreline. Unfortunately, the match descended into chaos roughly five minutes from time.

Match official Sikazwe--obviously wearing a watch improperly set--twice blew the full-time whistle too early. The ref first acknowledged his mistake and allowed play to continue on with a drop ball. He then, shortly after sending Malian substitute El Bilal Touré off on a straight red in the 87th, inexplicably forwent injury time at whistled for the end at the 90 minute mark. The Tunisian players were understandably furious, but their protests changed nothing. 

The midfield tandem of Samassekou and Haidara held reasonably well until the latter was subbed off in the 81st. The two players nevertheless didn't rotate much and only garnered roughly 40 touches apiece. Haidara remained the more active player, trying to keep the attack moving with several rightward outswingers. Samassekou focused on winning balls, looking mostly average in the ground duels.

Skhiri appeared a little unsettled at times sharing a midfield axis with several partners. He did look fairly confident when chasing down loose balls and contesting 50-50s. His second half offensive impetus was impressive. In many respects, the man who handled the ball in the box served as the most important Carthaginian on the pitch. Redemption simply wasn't attainable for the 26-year-old on this day.

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