Tunisia counting on home support in showdown against Morocco

TUNIS: Tunisia are hoping that an intimidating home crowd can spur them to a first African Nations Cup title when they face Morocco in today’s final. 

The host nation were carried through a nerve-racking semi-final against Nigeria by a packed house at Rades and Tunisia will need more of the same against the most disciplined side in the tournament. 

Runners-up in 1965 and 1996, Tunisia’s dominance in African club football has never transferred to the Nations Cup stage, while Morocco are bidding for only a second title after their 1976 triumph. 

Individual glory and collective bragging rights in the Maghreb are clearly the main items at stake at Rades, though they are not the only ones as Tunisia and Morocco are also among five nations bidding to host the 2010 World Cup. 

The Finals will be staged in Africa and the tag of being the continent’s champions can only help today’s winners against further rival bids from South Africa, Libya and Egypt. 

Adding further spice is the fact Tunisia and Morocco also share the same 2006 World Cup qualifying group later in the year. 

On the pitch such matters will be left far behind by two north African countries who have taken very different routes to the final. 

Tunisia have looked outside their borders for help in this tournament, hiring former France boss Roger Lemerre as coach and recruiting Brazilian striker Francileudo dos Santos, who took Tunisian nationality in time to make his debut last month. 

Another Brazilian-born import, Clayton, is likely to start in defence. 

Lemerre, meanwhile, stands to win consecutive titles on successive continents after guiding France to Euro 2000 glory before being sacked in the wake of their 2002 World Cup debacle. 

His task in taking Tunisia to the final has not been easy, with only a generously awarded penalty in the closing minutes against Nigeria earning them a 1-1 draw and the respite of extra time. 

The hosts eventually came through 5-3 on penalties, triggering an explosion of joy around the country. 

The only sour note was another yellow card for skipper and defender Khaled Badra, who is suspended for the final. 

Compared to Tunisia’s dour, gritty performances at these Finals, the Morocco side under former World Cup goalkeeper Badou Ezaki has proved a ready source of flowing attacking football. 

A young squad which Ezaki has carefully assembled after scouting the upper and lower divisions of European football has both skill on the ball and a tenacious grip on possession, while experienced captain Noureddine Naybet has provided strength at the back. 

Their 4-0 thrashing of much-fancied Mali in the semi-finals showed just how much damage Ezaki’s side can inflict on a side who fail to cope with the physical challenge. 

Without resorting to the play-acting which has marred some of their performances, Tunisia now need to prove to themselves and to some 60,000 fans that they can meet that challenge. – Reuters 

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