Battling Zebras hold Tunisia in Ghetto
After falling to a narrow midweek loss in Libya, the Zebras bounced back in fine style on Sunday, getting their AFCON 2023 campaign up-and-running with a battling draw against World Cup-bound Tunisia in Francistown.
Taking on a formidable Tunisian team ranked 113 places higher than them in the latest FIFA rankings, a team oozing with confidence having dismantled Equatorial Guinea 4-0 just three days earlier, Botswana showed plenty of heart as they went toe-to-toe with the North Africans for much of the 90 minutes.
Indeed, with a bit more composure in the final third, Teenage Mpote’s troops might have turned one point into all three.
In truth though, they will be delighted with their share the spoils, the woodwork twice coming to their rescue and Goitseone Phoko by far the busier of the two keepers.
With the two main stands at the Obed Itani Chilume stadium packed to the rafters, the atmosphere rekindled memories of seven years ago, when the 27, 000-seater venue was sold out for games against Mali and Uganda.
Although they couldn’t quite reach those numbers this time, the fans in attendance turned the ground into a cauldron of noise, roaring their approval when the Zebras attacked and howling in derision at every decision that went against their countrymen.
Drawing inspiration from the crowd, Lebogang Ditsele and Mothusi Cooper did not give the Tunisian midfield a moment’s respite on the ball, harrying into challenges like their lives depended on it. Considering he has hardly featured for his club side, MC Oujda back in Morocco, Cooper’s energetic display was all the more impressive.
Continuing where they left off against Equatorial Guinea, the Eagles of Carthage started the match in ominous mood, looking especially threatening down the left.
They should have taken the lead in the 17th minute, when Naim Sliti’s chipped cross found Mohamed Arbi unmarked at the far post, the left-footed striker’s first-time volley forcing a brilliant reaction save from Phoko, the first of several top interventions from the Gaborone United glove-man.
Arbi, one of 15 players in Tunisia’s 23-man squad who play their club football outside of Africa, came even closer minutes later.
Robbed of possession in the box, Township Rollers defender, Mosha Gaolaolwe (the only Popa representative picked in the entire squad) could only watch as Seifeddine Jaziri slipped in Arbi, a sigh of relief reverberating around the ground as the forward’s shot smashed into the bar from a tight angle.
Buoyed by this, the Zebras then created their best opportunity of the encounter, cutting Tunisia open in thrilling fashion.
Pinned in at the back, Ditsele brushed off his marker, who crumpled to the floor looking for a foul. Ignoring the Tunisian’s theatrics, ‘CCTV’ threaded a pin-point pass that dissected the midfield, picking out Kabelo Seakanyeng in space on the half-way line. Racing forward, Seakanyeng swiftly spread the play out wide, where the overlapping left-back, Mothusi Johnson fizzed an angled cross into the box towards the onrushing, Tumisang Orebonye.
Stooping to meet the ball on the bounce, the Palapye powerhouse saw his header spectacularly saved by Tunisia goalkeeper, Bechir Said from point-blank range, the sprawling shot-stopper getting a strong right hand to push the effort away.
Seakanyeng reached the loose ball first but was denied by a last ditch tackle, his shot ricocheting away for a corner when many expected the net to bulge.
It was to prove Botswana’s only clear-cut opening and although they probed manfully in the second half, forcing their way into several decent positions and keeping the crowd on the edge of their seats, they couldn’t quite find that killer pass again.
They almost lost it at the death as well, substitute, Adam Benlamine curling his first-time shot into the bar when, from just 12-yards out, he probably should have done better – the Zebras thankful that Benlamine is a defender and not an attacker!
The road to Ivory Coast now pauses for a frustrating three-month break, with a double header against Equatorial Guinea in September up next for Mpote’s men.
They now have a base to build from and, if they can recreate the fire they showed in Francistown, they stand a good chance of progressing to the continent’s premier competition for only the second time in the country’s history.