World Cup preview: Tunisia, “England only fearful on paper”

World Cup preview: Tunisia, “England only fearful on paper”

Tunisia are one of the five national teams qualified from Africa for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, where they will face Belgium, Panama and England in Group G.

Nicknamed the Eagles of Carthage, the North Africans will be making their fifth campaign in the Mundial, following a debut appearance in 1978 in Argentina and three further participation, in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

Head coach Nabil Maaloul

The 54-year-old Tunisian was appointed in April 2017, succeeding French-Polish manager Henri Kasperczak, in a two-year deal, with a monthly salary of $27,000 and a promise of a pay rise if he qualifies the team to the 2018 World Cup.

Maaloul is not a newcomer to the Eagles fold, having worked as assistant under then coach Roger Lemerre, who led Tunisia to clinch the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations. He was later named as head coach of the team in 2013 but stepped down seven months later after Tunisia failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

Tunisia’s Nabil Maaloul

Maaloul was later appointed to coach Kuwait but following their suspension since 2016 by FIFA, he remained without a coaching job and was consulting for Qatari channel beIN Sports.

He has achieved his first objective on his second coming, which was qualifying the team to the 2018 World Cup. The other task, as imposed by his employers, is booking a place for the team at the 2019 Afcon in Cameroon.

Greatest Achievements

Tunisia’s greatest achievement in football until now remains their ultimate triumph at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations, which they hosted, defeating Morocco 2-1 in the final to record their first continental silverware.

Tunisia were also the first African country to win a match a FIFA World Cup. A thrilling come from behind 3-1 victory over Mexico at the Argentina ’78 edition. They also drew goalless with then defending champions West Germany but were knocked out following a 1-0 defeat to Poland.

The other success is Tunisia’s victory at the 2011 African Nations Championship(CHAN) held in Sudan, where they crushed Angola 3-0 in the final game of the biennial tournament exclusively reserved for home-based players.

They have won the Arab Nations Cup once in 1963.

Tunisia have been runners-up twice at the Afcon in 1965 and 1996, third placed in 1962 and fourth placed two times in 1978 and 2000.

How They Qualified

The Eagles of Carthage began their qualification journey in the second round, having enjoyed bye from the first round. In the second round, they overcame, rather easily, Mauritania, winning the home and away fixtures on a 4-2 aggregate.

In the third round, which is the group stage, they were placed in Group A alongside DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. Tunisia topped the group with 14 points, after winning four matches and drawing two. They scored eleven goals in the process without losing any game.

They thus claimed the sole spot of Group A to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Star Players

Unfortunately, Tunisia will be doing without two of their key players, playmaker Youssef Msakni, who hurt his knee two months ago, and defender Aymen Abdenour, also due to injury.

However, the coach’s initial list of 29 players includes a couple of brilliant players that the entire nation would be looking up to.

Yohan Benalouane (Leicester defender): After a series of disappointment to honour Tunisia call-ups, the 31-year-old French-born appears to have made it this time and is likely to be included in the final roster due to his experience and indefatigable field work.

Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier midfielder): High on the wish list of Monaco at the moment, the 23-year-old is known for his pace and ability to deliver timely assists. He achieved four during the just-concluded Ligue 1 season in the France.

Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain midfielder): Although home-based, the 23-year-old midfielder is attracting huge interest from Europe, notably France. Scouts from Dijon and Nice have supervised the player a couple of times. His aerial qualities, cute ball distribution and free-kick abilities have made him a promising player that could make a name for himself at the World Cup.

Bassem Srarfi (Nice forward): Bassem Srarfi has been approached as a possible replacement for Riyad Mahrez at Leicester due to his dribbling and passing abilities, but his club Nice declined to release him unless a huge offer was tabled. He is another player to watch at the World Cup.

Wahbi Khazri (Rennes forward): On loan from Sunderland, the 27-year-old immensely contributed to his side’s fifth place finish in Ligue 1, which offers them a Europa League spot. He is currently being courted by Olympique Marseille. He would have the opportunity to improve his market rating while playing at the 2018 World Cup.

Expectations

Tunisia are not aiming to win the World Cup, far from that. Their main goal was to qualify to the tournament and use it to build a reliable team that can make a huge statement at the 2019 Afcon. However, if they progress from the group stage, confidence level would likely be boosted and they could achieve what many least expected of them.

Prospective Betting

Belgium vs Tunisia: The odds are very high here against the Africans, who would be facing one of the best teams in Europe, currently, made up of players who ply their trade in top leagues unlike Tunisian players. Belgium are favoured to carry the day at say 3-1.

Panama vs Tunisia: This is the one team Tunisia could challenge and peel some points from. Panama, though are tactical and have a good defence, they are not a huge threat to the Eagles, who could claim a 1-0 win to stay competitive in the group.

England vs Tunisia: Perhaps this could be Tunisia’s biggest challenge in Group G, but, like local pundits put it, ‘England are only fearful on paper’. The North Africans have what it takes to hold their own and force a stalemate after 90 minutes.

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