Mali opened their Group F campaign with a 1-0 win over Tunisia. The game only picked up momentum in the second half, and in the end referee Janny Sikazwe caused a stir with two too-early whistles.
Three Bundesliga players were in the starting eleven at kick-off in Limbe on the southwest coast of Cameroon: Cologne’s Skhiri started for the Tunisians and Leipzig’s Amadou Haidara alongside Hoffenheim’s Samassekou.
The West Africans got off to a better start, earning a series of corner kicks at the start, but without any return. Mali remained more active, but were mostly frustrated by Tunisia’s robust and alert defence. A long-range shot by Massadio Haidara in the 41st minute, which went just wide of the left post, was Mali’s best chance.
And also of the entire first half. There was no sign of the Tunisians offensively until the final whistle. The North Africans’ build-up play was quite pleasing, but up front they simply lacked courage and bite, and Mali keeper Mounkoro did not have to intervene seriously once.
Skhiri gives away a handball – Mounkoro saves from Khazri
The picture was to change completely after the change of ends: After only a few seconds Skhiri committed a handball in the penalty area, referee Sikazwe pointed to the spot: Ibrahima Koné stepped up and loaded Tunisia’s keeper Ben Said. Tunisia finally woke up and went forward: In the 56th minute, the eager captain Khazri forced Mounkoro into a brilliant save from a free-kick. Skhiri then had a great chance to make it 1-1 from the following corner, but the Cologne player put his header just wide of the left post (57th).
Tunisia kept the pressure on, Mali could hardly break free and also played the few counter-attacks in a sloppy manner. On 77 minutes, the Tunisians had another great chance to equalise: Djenepo got a hand to the ball after a cross from Khazri. The captain himself took the responsibility, but Mounkoro was quick to react and block the less than ideal penalty kick (77th minute).
Whistled twice too early: Sikazwe causes trouble for Tunisia
This was the prelude to a turbulent final phase in which referee Janny Sikazwe was to play the leading role. First, the referee from Zambia blew his whistle about five minutes too early. However, the 42-year-old recognised his mistake after the players had pointed it out, corrected himself and then allowed play to continue with a dropped ball. A little later, Sikazwe showed Malian El Bilal Touré, who had just been substituted, the red card (87th). Sikawze watched this scene on TV, just like the two penalties. It was all the more incomprehensible that after a total of three review situations, two penalties, a goal and a sending-off in conjunction with two drinking breaks (one per half), he did not allow the game to be replayed and once again blew the whistle too early. His final whistle came 15 seconds before the 90 minutes were up. The Tunisian players and officials in particular reacted angrily – and rightly so, given the way the game had gone, there should have been several minutes of injury time. But this time Sikazwe remained stubborn and Mali’s victory was not to be shaken.