It’s been a long 12-year wait for the Eagles of Carthage to finally qualify again for football’s showpiece event. From 1998 to 2006, with the 2002 World Cup sandwiched in the middle, the north-west African nation reached the finals for three times in succession.
This time around, progress beyond Group G, again, looks unlikely. Star man Youssef Msakni’s awful cruciate ligament injury, which he sustained in April playing for Al-Duhail in the Qatar Stars League, was a catastrophic blow to their overall chances.
His absence is indeed rotten luck and has increased the pressure on Sunderland man Wahbi Khazri, who has spent this past season on loan at Rennes, to step-up. The difference in quality between those two though is stark.
Indeed, prolificacy in front of goal will be a real problem. Sitting alongside Msakni on the injury treatment table is forward Yassine Khenissi. The ES de Tunis hitman, who was the leading goalscorer in last year’s CAF Champions League, will miss the World Cup after sustaining a thigh injury.
The news came as another knockout blow for Nabil Maaloul’s men, leaving Tunisia short of few striking alternatives.
The make-up of Tunisia’s group is intriguing but Belgium and England are certainly the overwhelming favourites to advance.
However, if Tunisia could get at least a point from one of those two games, it might mean they have hope ahead of their final group game against newcomers Panama at the Mordovia Arena in Saransk.
Impressively, Maaloul’s side topped their qualification group with ease, winning four matches and drawing two against sides including DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.
The 2004 African Cup of Nations champions, having missed the past two editions of the World Cup, will be raring to have another crack at England in their opener.
Tunisia lost 2-0 to Glenn Hoddle’s men at France ‘98 in their Group Stage clash and will be hoping to put some kind of record straight.
Blessed with great technical ability, the 25-year-old Lille star will need to be on top of his game. Having had a good season on loan from his parent club at Dijon, he should relish that extra responsibility in Msakni’s absence.
The former Hannover 96 and Al-Ahli club midfielder took over the coaching reins again in April 2017, having briefly worked with his nation – with whom he earned 74 caps including a return off 11 goals during his career – in the early 2000s to guide them to their first World Cup since 2006.
At 33, the Al Batin goalkeeper is by far the most senior and experienced player in the ranks when it comes to caps. Will need to work closely with coach Maaloul to get instructions across to an inexperienced side who need to be utterly disciplined at the back to stand a chance.
The 20-year-old Nice winger made his international bow back in March during the 1-0 win over Iran and has talent, but lacks experience along with many other members of the squad. Could be used as an impact substitute in Russia – expect his team-mates to look for him at every chance.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– On March 20, 1956, Tunisia gained independence from France and four years later became a member of FIFA 1956.
– Home advantage counted a lot for Tunisia back in 2004 when they triumphed as AFCON hosts Tunisia have only won one match at the World Cup, a 3-1 win over Mexico in 1978.
– They would also go on to draw with west Germany that year.
70 DEF 72 MID 72 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (first tournament in 1978)
World Cup record
P16, W7, D2, L7
Group Stage (1998)
P8, W6, D2
Goalkeepers: A. Mathlouthi (Al Batin), M.Hassen (Chateauroux), F. Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab).
Defenders: N. Hamdi (Zamalek), D. Bronn (Gent), R. Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Y. Benalouane (Leicester), S. Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Y. Meriah (CS Sfaxien), O. Haddadi (Dijon), A. Maaloul (Al Ahly).
Midfielders: E. Skhiri (Montpellier), M. Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli), G. Chaalali (Esperance), F. Sassi (Al Nassr), A. Khalil (Club Africain), S. El Khaoui (Troyes).
Strikers: F. Ben Youssef (Al Ettifaq), A. Badri (Esperance), B. Srarfi (Nice), W. Khazri (Rennes), N. Sliti (Dijon), S. Khalifa (Club Africain).
Goals are set to be a big problem and only a handful of players in the squad ply their trade in Europe. third spot may be their best hope.
France centre-back Samuel Umtiti believes the Les Bleu squad have ’23 leaders’ and youngsters who will relish the responsibility of chasing their World Cup dream in Russia.
Didier Deschamps’ men face Australia, Peru and Denmark in Group C.
Watch Umtiti speak during his press conference below:
Henderson and Dier have played together in the engine room on many occasions but Southgate suggested this week he is keen to play with a solitary pivot alongside two more attacking central players.
“I will play wherever he wants me to play – whether that is a more protective role or a more advanced role,” said the Liverpool captain.
“Obviously I have been a lot more used to the more entrenched position, but I would be pretty comfortable in either position.
“Every time I play for England I try to do my best and try to give everything.
“It is up to the manager to decide who is in the best XI for the first game and then for the games after that but I have felt in good form for a long time.”
One notable omission from Henderson’s CV, should he find himself pitching for a move upfield, is an England goal.
He has yet to hit the target in 39 appearances, but came close during Thursday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica when a fierce drive was beaten away by Keylor Navas.
“I probably caught it too well,” he said. “It was a good save from the keeper. It was just sort of bobbling about so I thought I would have a go.
“My role has changed for my club and my country, really. It isn’t about scoring, it is about other people scoring and for me, it is about protecting a lot more.
“It’s trying to create now and again, going forward and trying to start the play off.”