AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) - A cauldron of seething Maghreb passion bore witness to a famous Tunisian World Cup victory over champions France in Qatar on Wednesday, but the merest of scratches beneath the surface of this Group D win reveals a telling narrative which puts the win in sharp perspective.
When the teams lined up for kick-off, French coach Didier Deschamps had made nine changes to his starting eleven for the clash, with France already qualified and almost certain of topping the group regardless.
To lean on a hoary old sporting cliché, it was men against boys.
Frankly speaking, you could forgive any one of the 43,627 ticket holders at the Education City Stadium for feeling a little cheated. Although they might console themselves that they had been allowed a sneak preview of the 2026 French World Cup team.
Of the nine players he brought in, six were aged 23 or younger. The team's average age was lifted considerably by the inclusion of Steve Mandanda in goal, who, aged 37, became the oldest player to represent the French at a World Cup.
Beyond resting his first choices, if Deschamps was holding an audition for the upstarts to join the superstars, few, if any, would be causing him any selection quandaries.
Ibrahima Konate was the pick of the bunch, though, looking assured in defence and growing in stature minute-by-minute against the frenetic Tunisians.
But it would be premature, not to say harsh, to assume the French do not possess strength in depth – any one of Deschamps’ "Baby Blues" could slot into the first team and do their job. Just all together, all at once was too much to ask.
A World Cup winner as both a player and a coach, winning runs through Deschamps like a golden thread, and when French-born Tunisian Wahbi Khazri slipped the ball into the net after 58 minutes, the coach had seen enough.
First Kylian Mbappe, then Antoine Griezmann, then Ousmane Dembele were brought on. France looked an entirely different team, and Tunisia were hanging on for dear life.
Right at the death, deep into added time, it had looked like Griezmann had rescued a draw for the French only for the referee to rule it out for a debatable off-side.
Australia’s victory over Denmark saw them squeeze in front of Tunisia to qualify, but the pain of failure will be eased a little by a famous victory over their former colonisers.
Neither Deschamps, nor France, will be concerned, though.
"Some players were at risk and we had played two high intensity games. It allowed the others to see the difference, it is a World Cup match," Deschamps said.
"We've reached our goal, we will recover, a second competition will start."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Angus MacSwan)