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Mali takes down Tunisia in AFCON Group F clash marred by controversy

In a battle between Les Aigles and the Carthage Eagles, it was Mali who emerged with a 1-0 victory over Tunisia to start off action in Group F at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations on Wednesday. Ibrahima Koné sent Tunisia keeper Bechir Ben Saïd the wrong way on a 48th minute penalty kick to give Mali the upper hand in the race for top spot in the group. However, the two premature full-time whistles by referee Janny Sikazwe stole the show at the end as Tunisia were left protesting furiously due to no second-half stoppage time being allowed.

Mali came out with energy and took the match to a Tunisia side that lacked vigor in the first half. Despite having a bit more of the ball and looking more dangerous, however, the Malian team did not look particularly dangerous. Moussa Djenepo’s 37th minute cross from the left wing nearly found right back and captain Hamari Traoré, but the Rennes player could not get a touch to the inswinging ball.

Following the scoreless first half, action picked up very quickly when Mali found their goal. In the 47th minute following a set piece, Mali center back Kiki Kouyaté attempted an ambitious volley from the edge of the Tunisia penalty area. Turning his back to block the shot, Tunisia’s Ellyes Skhiri had a hand away from his body that touched the weak shot and a penalty kick was awarded. Koné left no doubt on his spot kick which was too much for third-string Tunisia keeper Ben Saïd to save.

Tunisia finally got into gear after conceding and proceeded to control the game as they pushed for an equalizer. Playmaker Wahbi Khazri was the greatest danger, stinging Mali goalkeeper Ibrahim Mounkoro’s gloves with a direct free kick before sending in a corner kick that nearly resulted in the leveler for the Carthage Eagles. Khazri got his chance to equalize from the penalty spot in the 77th minute when a hand ball was called on Mali, but Mounkoro came up huge to deny the Saint-Étienne player.

The Tunisians continued to push, but in the final five minutes referee Janny Sikazwe drew all the attention for some bizarre actions. In the 86th minute, Sikazwe blew what appeared to be the full-time whistle, leading to confusion all around as he consulted with his crew and realized his error. Soon after, Mali substitute forward El Bilal Touré was issued a straight red card for a rather innocuous challenge, the decision being maintained by Sikazwe even after the Video Assistant Referee called him to review the play.

To cap it all off, a little before 90 minutes were up, Sikazwe blew for full time and did not accept any discussions of his decision as a furious Tunisian team confronted him. The Carthage Eagles were denied any second half stoppage time in truly surreal scenes, resulting in Sikazwe and the refereeing crew being escorted off by security. Later on the post-match press conference, CAF officials interrupted to instruct the teams to return to the pitch to play out three minutes of stoppage time but Tunisia refused to return while a befuddled Malian side awaited the final decision.

Tunisia will look to rebound against Mauritania in their next match on Sunday while Mali and Gambia clash. Highlights are below.

Highlights

Referee controversy at the end

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