Nabil Maaloul’s message to fans and press since the draw which took place last December and paired the Eagles of Carthage with England, Belgium and Panama: “We’ve the quality to play good football and qualify for next round”.
This will of “playing good football” is in the line with the change of attitude which is occurring in Tunisia NT since 2017 African Cup of Nations. Labelled as a very defensive/negative, tactical side for the past years/decades across the continent.
The 2004 African champions have, since the African showpiece which took place in Gabon last year and under Henryk Kasperczak’s leadership, now adopted a more-offensive approach to their games. Well helped by talents which were missing or not mature enough in the past years.
The likes of Youssef Msakni, Wahbi Khazri, Naim Sliti, Mohamed Amin Ben Amor and Ali Maaloul have been a breath of change. They reached its climax during World Cup qualifiers away in Conakry as Tunisia imposed its new style and battered Le Syli National under the technical leadership of its new attacking force.
The World Cup qualification was then sealed in Rades against Libya and finally put an end to a decade of bottling either in AFCON tournaments or World Cup qualifications (Maputo’s catastrophe during 2010 World Cup qualifiers can be seen as the best example).
Added to this breath of fresh air concerning the national team way of playing, Tunisia NT players acquired (through this World Cup campaign and the formidable comebacks in Stade des Martyrs or Conakry) a never-say-die attitude which the past failing generations were lacking since.
Those two events have been clearly watershed moments for this generation of footballers who succeeded where previous groups failed for a decade.
2018 started full of promises for Tunisia fans as the majority of key players shone with their clubs till March international break and the injuries to talismanic attacker Youssef Msakni and Espérance goleador Taha Yassin Khenissi.
Those two absences pushed Maaloul to change his tactics. The well decorated tactician decided to solve those two problems by having Khazri in a more forward position (false nine) and give Naim Sliti even more offensive responsibilities than when Msakni was available.
A tactical change by force of circumstance which showed promises during the two victories against Costa Rica and Iran.
The March international break also allowed Maaloul to beef up the squad. Born in 1995, French based trio Moez Hassan, Saifeldin Khaoui and Elyes Skhiri finally put on the White & Red shirt following the green light by FIFA.
The three new players showed promises and could become important members of the squad in the near future, especially Skhiri who brought something different to Tunisia’s midfield.
During the same break, the defence, under the leadership of the solid Yassin Meriah kept two clean sheets and kept silent its opponents.
This premonitory and interesting “plan B” applied during March break became Tunisia best tactics following two huge blows in the space of few weeks. First, Youssef Msakni’s injury. Tunisia’s prodigal son tore his ACL during a league game in Qatar which prevented him to fulfil the biggest footballer’s dream and lead his country on the world scene.
Days after, Tunisia would receive another blow as another member of the attacking sector, Espérance Tunis bomber Taha Yassin Khenissi, sustained a lengthy injury.
Among the duo’s absence, it is evident that Youssef Msakni’s one is clearly the most influential on the team. The Al Duhail jewel undoubtedly Tunisia’s biggest talent for years has been Tunisia NT undisputed maestro and had finally a chance to show the world his immense talent.
Although the Eagles of Carthage already prepared themselves well for life without those two key players during March FIFA break, it is clear as crystal that the duo’s absence (Especially Youssef Msakni’s one) reduces Tunisia’s chances to get to next round.
Added to that, the opposition which will face Tunisia for its return at the World Cup after a 12-year absence will be of a bigger calibre, more tactically astute, technically better than the one faced either in the March friendlies or even during AFCON tournaments or World Cup qualifiers.
Finally it is fair to say that Tunisia will have nothing to lose at the World Cup – especially in such a group with two star-studded teams like England & Belgium.
Fans and pundits back home and in the diaspora are hoping to see their players putting the same offensive-minded, solid performances seen since a year. Winning a 2nd World Cup game in the history of the country against Panama; and pulling miracles against the goliaths Belgium & England.
Why not? As a famous proverb says: المستحيل ليس تونسي ! (Impossible isn’t Tunisian!)
By Lotfi Wada (Twitter: @LotfiWada)