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Tunisia's best hope was for third place, says coach Maaloul

SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Tunisia have achieved their target at the World Cup because they arrived in Russia fully aware the best they could hope for was to finish third in their group, coach Nabil Maaloul said after their 2-1 victory over Panama on Thursday.

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Making their fifth World Cup appearance, ‘the Eagles of Carthage’ were drawn with European powerhouses Belgium and England, as well as debutants Panama, in Group G.

Tunisia were beaten 2-1 by England in their opening match and thumped 5-2 by Belgium in their second, ending their hopes of progressing to the knockout stages before their final group game.

But the North Africans fly home with a sense of satisfaction after ending a 40-year wait for a World Cup victory with their come-from-behind win over Panama at the Mordovia Arena.

“Today’s match was a well-deserved win for the Tunisian side. When we landed in this group, I think we knew that our best hope would be to come third,” Maaloul told reporters.

Tunisia became the first African country to win a game at a World Cup when they beat Mexico in Argentina in 1978, but had since drawn four matches and lost nine before Thursday’s victory.

Forward Wahbi Khazri set up the first goal and scored the second as Tunisia found the net twice in the second half after conceding an own goal in the first.

Maaloul praised his team’s fight in their first match with England, where Tunisia defended heroically before being undone by a late Harry Kane strike, but conceded that their performance against Belgium was considerably poorer.

“Perhaps in the second match we should have been better,” the coach said. “Our performance against England was very good, we were level with them technically. They have some of the best players in the world and we had to sit deep.

“We should have been more defensive against Belgium. We shouldn’t have been so offensive and conceded so many goals. We were on a suicide mission when we tried to attack them.”

Striker Fakhreddine Ben Yousseff, who scored Tunisia’s opening goal and was named player of the match, said they had to work extremely hard to end their four-decade wait for a World Cup victory.

“We had to face two tough opponents, two of the best teams in Europe, which we lost, but today we were able to make up for that,” he said.

“It was not an easy match. We wanted to snatch this victory, and I wanted to score, and I did. This is a great day for Tunisia.”

Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Simon Jennings