World Cup 2018: Tunisia Preview
Returning to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years, how will Tunisia fare in Russia this summer?
Four previous World Cup finals ventures have yet to yield an escape from the group stages for Tunisia.
This – coupled with the fact they have only one win to their name in the 1978 competition – has led the African outfit to target small improvements in Russia this summer.
Tunisia are joined in Group G by Belgium, England and Panama with their opening match seeing them take on the Three Lions on June 18th.
Finishing third in a highly competitive group would surely constitute a success but coach Nabil Maaloul will be hoping that his side go into their final group game against Panama with something more promising to play for.
But with Tunisia missing out on the services of one of their better players, Youssef Msakni – who tore his cruciate ligament earlier in the season – and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor only just coming back from injury, it’s hard to see them taking anything away from the games against England and Belgium.
However, for a country with a population of 11 million, they continue to out-perform their rivals within the Confederation of African Football (CAF), thanks mainly to a well-organised domestic league.
Expect Tunisia, then, to present themselves well during the group stages: a well-drilled side defensively with a number of dangerous players going forward, not least Ferjani Sassi who scored against Turkey in the recent World Cup warm-up games.
Route to the finals
The Eagles of Carthage qualified top of a relatively weak CAF group ahead of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.
However, a lack of goals against these weaker outfits has raised the eyebrows of a few fans ahead of Nabil Maaloul’s Russian adventure.
Two 1-0 wins in recent friendlies against Iran and Costa Rica have given reason for optimism amongst the Tunisian support, along with a 2-2 draw against Turkey more recently.
However, with two of his standout attacking players possibly missing the tournament, Maaloul may be left scratching his head come June.
Although Aymen Mathlouthi is the Tunisian captain, in recent months Nabil Maaloul has favoured Mouez Hassen in net.
He’ll sit behind a fairly consistent four-men defence of Dylan Bronn, Yassine Meriah, Syam Ben Youssef and Ali Maaloul.
With Nabil Maaloul preferring a 4-3-3 formation which can easily morph into a 4-2-3-1 against weaker sides or sides who are hard to break down, Tunisia will tend to line up with a midfield three of Ferjani Sassi just ahead of Ellyes Skhiri.
The final midfield spot will be contested but, by the time the competition rolls around, Tunisia will hope their talisman Mohamed Amine Ben Amor will be available having been out for a lengthy period after surgery.
Having only recently returned, it is likely he will begin the tournament from the bench. If he does, it should be Saif-Eddine Khaoui who gets the nod. Ghailene Chaalali will hope he is still in contention though.
In the front three, Naim Sliti and Anice Badri will likely flank Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, the spearhead of this Tunisian side.
Key player: Mohamed Amine Ben Amor
A relatively late arrival on the international scene, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor – who plies his trade with Etoile Sportive du Sahel in Tunisia – made his debut as a 23-year-old against Morocco in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Since then, the Tunisian playmaker has gone on to make 24 appearances for his side, picking up two goals in the process.
A creative player, he will most likely play as the more advanced of Tunisia’s midfield three, looking to drift into space behind the striker and release the wide players down the flanks.
His performances both domestically and internationally have not gone unnoticed: in recent months, both Hoffenheim and Hertha Berlin have lodged bidsfor the 26-year-old Tunisian.
On paper, Group G is split down the middle. Two sides are vying for top spot with the other two hoping to achieve third spot in the group, and with it, pride.
Football, however, isn’t played on paper and Tunisia will be hoping to upset the applecart by eking out a positive result against either England or Belgium, coupled with a win over the even more un-fancied Panama.
If this is achieved, four points could well prove enough to progress into the Round of 16. However, the odds are significantly stacked against them.
As we know, England can easily be frustrated in major tournaments. If the Eagles of Carthage can clamber to a draw in the opening fixture, then the race is on.
As much as we may want to twist the narrative of Group G, it’s surely inevitable that there is only one possible destination.
Tunisia will come to Russia with dreams of taking something away from the Belgium and England matches but, in reality, the African side should target claiming their second ever victory at a World Cup finals.
This is achievable. Panama are one of the weakest sides in Russia this summer and, despite losing a couple of key players through injury, Tunisia are more than capable of beating the Central American debutants.