Saber Khalifa’s faint touch on Khaled Korbi’s 34th-minute free kick helped guide the ball home and send Tunisia into a surprise lead over its North African rival. Substitute Youssef Msakni made it 2-0 with a fine solo run and finish in the 76th.
Houssine Kharja scored a contentious late goal for Morocco to set up a nervous finish for the Tunisians at Stade de l’Amitie, with Ahmed Kantari clearly offside when he set up Morocco’s captain.
Morocco's Marouane Chamakh, center, make his way past Tunisia's captain Karim Haggui, left and Aymen Abdennour during their African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match at Stade De L'Amitie in Libreville, Gabon, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012.
Kharja then nearly stole a point in stoppage time but he fired over the crossbar, and Eric Gerets’ disappointing team was left to rue the last of a string of wasted chances in Libreville.
Marouane Chamakh and second-half substitute Youssouf Hadji had the most glaring misses for Morocco, which had been predicted to top the group and go far in the tournament but fell victim to another surprise result on the third day of an already-unpredictable African Cup.
“We’re happy to have played a good match,” Tunisia captain Karim Haggui said. “We were organized defensively and took advantage of some mistakes. This will set a new standard for our players because our team is very young.”
Morocco surged forward in the dying moments, inspired by Kharja’s goal with four minutes of normal time to go, but couldn’t steal a point in the five minutes of stoppage time added by the referee.
Tunisia joined Gabon at the top of Group C, while the Moroccans next face a must-win match against the buoyant co-hosts.
“Unfortunately something went wrong. Maybe the heart was bigger than the brain,” Gerets said. “There’s no discussion that it now adds extra pressure. If you lose again you’re out.”
Chamakh shot straight at goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi when clear early in the game, and Hadji sent his left-footed shot wide of goal in the second half after brilliantly controlling a long ball and turning inside his marker.
Tunisia made Morocco pay, first when Khalifa scored against the run of play and then from the high-quality strike of Msakni, who weaved past two defenders and shot back across goal into the far left corner.
“We think we can do even better in the future,” Tunisia coach Sami Trabelsi said.
Tunisia had the first opening when captain Haggui hit a volley straight from a corner that goalkeeper Nadir Lamyaghri was forced to scramble away.
That spurred Morocco into action and Tunisia Mathlouthi pulled off a point-blank save from Chamakh after Mbark Boussoufa had threaded a clever pass through a cluttered defense for the Arsenal forward.
Boussoufa went close himself when his right-footed shot from an angle was beaten away by Mathlouthi in the 18th minute.
Tunisia caused problems on counterattacks, and Zouhaier Dhaouadi hit a powerful curled shot from 25 yards (meters) that thundered off the outside of the post before Khalifa glanced his header into the bottom right corner for 1-0.
Chamakh added to Morocco’s frustrations when he headed over at the end of the first half after reaching a cross before the ‘keeper.
Gerets had started with Adel Taarabt on the bench but introduced the Queens Park Rangers midfielder at halftime.
With Taarabt slotting in on the left side of midfield, Morocco began to build momentum but Hadji’s superb control in the 66th was rendered pointless when he shot wide with Mathlouthi beaten.
Msakni made no mistake 10 minutes later with his fine effort to put Morocco two goals clear.
Kharja swept in after Kantari headed back across goal from an offside position to set up a grandstand finish, but Tunisia held out.
Morocco: Nadir Lamyaghri, Michael Basser, Badr El Kaddouri, Ahmed Kantari, Mehdi Benatia, Younes Belhanda, Ossama Assaidi (Adel Taarabt, 45), Houssine Kharja, Mbark Boussoufa (Youssouf Hadji, 60), Marouane Chamakh (Youssef El Arabi, 78), Nourredine Amrabat.
Tunisia: Aymen Mathlouthi, Bilel Ifa, Karim Haggui, Ammar Jemal, Khaled Korbi, Yasine Chikhaoui, Sami Allagui (Youssef Msakni, 56) Mejdi Traoui, Zouhaier Dhaouadi (Amine Chermiti, 80), Saber Khalifa, Aymen Abdennour.
(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online sports on Twitter: @AO_Sports)