Tunisia might have gone unbeaten in qualifying, but the mood in North Africa is decidedly dour ahead of their first appearance at a World Cup in 12 years. Youssef Msakni, the team’s creator in chief, has been ruled out of the tournament with a cruciate ligament injury.
Nabil Maaloul’s hopes will now rest heavily on 27-year-old attacker Wahbi Khazri. Sunderland fans may remember him as being one of Sam Allardyce’s first managerial signings back in January 2016. Alongside Lamine Koné and Jan Kirchhoff, the Bordeaux winger helped inspire the Black Cats to safety, before tailing off badly as his side were relegated 12 months later.
As Sunderland fell deeper into the Championship mire, Khazri was dispatched on loan to Rennes. He has shown his best form in Brittany, reaching double figures for goals as Sabri Lamouchi’s side vaulted into fifth place. A return to Rennes may not be on the cards because of his wage demands and value, so Khazri enters this summer's World Cup with uncertainty.
His form is so impressive that several of Ligue 1’s bigger clubs are reputed to be showing an interest. Sunderland, therefore, will pray that Khazri performs well and avoids injury so that they can maximise the return for the Tunisian.
Khazri might have lodged just one goal in World Cup qualifying, but his place in Maaloul’s side is guaranteed. It has been ever since Khazri switched international allegiance from his native France to appear at the Cup of Nations tournament in 2013.
Tunisia’s most recent international fixture was decided by the Rennes man, with a goal in the 36th minute besting World Cup quarter-finalists Costa Rica. It continued an impressive recent trend, with the Eagles of Carthage securing victories over Iran and Egypt over the past 18 months.
Khazri is arrogant. Occasionally, he can scarcely be bothered celebrating his own goals, often seeming like he boasts a snarling disregard for the talent in his feet. It is that supreme assurance, however, which makes him such a dangerous prospect.
An outrageous flicked finish against Marseille highlighted all of his impudent brilliance, but he is equally adept at shooting from longer distances too. What the former Bordeaux man lacks in pace, he makes up for with incisive dribbling and an accurate shot. First-time finishes, powerful headers, a cute wedge after dropping the defender with an errant shoulder; Khazri has done it all for Rennes this year.
Everyone can remember his wonder goal against Chelsea for Sunderland back in 2016 and it is that Khazri that Tunisia needs at the World Cup if they are to progress past the groups.
He isn’t perfect. The arrogance that makes him so devilish can prove a weakness too. Khazri can drift into lethargy too frequently, whilst an attentive and pacy defender could manage to nix most of his runs.
Tunisia will need to create the space in which their best player can flourish. A lot will depend on how Maaloul sets up his team.
If the Eagles can recover the ball in the opponents’ half, getting the ball to Khazri and letting him run at a disoriented defence could prove handsome dividends. The odds of passage in a group containing England and Belgium might be slim, but the Three Lions’ famous neuroses could be rekindled if Khazri shows some of his early Sunderland form.
Qualification might be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible.
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