The road to Russia
Pretty straightforward, really.
Tunisia topped African Qualifying Group A, ahead of DR Congo, Guinea, and Libya, ending the campaign unbeaten after winning four and drawing two. A draw away to DR Congo proved the pivotal match and result, with Tunisia coming back from 0-2 down with 13 minutes remaining to draw 2-2. It ensured that that they finished one point ahead of the Leopards, despite only drawing their last match at home to Libya.
The Eagles of Carthage’s smooth progress, albeit out of a relatively easy group, was all the more impressive since the team underwent a change of coach two matches into the campaign; Nabil Maaloul replaced Henryk Kasperczak after a quarter-final defeat in the African Cup of Nations. Maaloul is only the second Tunisian to qualify for the World Cup, following in the footsteps of Abdelmajid Chetali.
How do they play?
Maaloul – who was Roger Lemerre’s number two as Tunisia won the 2004 African Cup of Nations – has proven adept at changing formation to best combat the opposition, using a 4-5-1, a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, and a 4-3-1-2, while that crucial 2-2 away draw was secured using a 5-3-2.
In recent matches, Maaloul seems to have settled for a 4-2-3-1, with two central midfielders, usually one of whom is the impressive Ferjani Sassi, to help shield a strong, robust defence, and a skilful, attacking, offensive midfield line to support the striker.
The lack of an out-and-out goalscoring centre-forward could be the main concern for the team: Wahbi Khazri – by no means a born goalscorer – has scored around a third of the squad’s aggregate international goals, having scored only 12.
Who is their star player?
Earlier in the year, Maaloul said that Tunisia hypothetically losing striker Youssef Msakni, scorer of a hat-trick in the country’s 4-1 win at Guinea in their penultimate qualifying match, would be like Argentina competing without Lionel Messi. Sadly, those words came back to haunt him as Msakni suffered a knee ligament injury in April that has ruled him out of the World Cup.
In his absence, attention will likely turn to Wahbi Khazri. The adjective “mercurial” could have been invented for the Sunderland midflielder-cum-striker, who has had a successful loan period at Rennes this season. But on his day, Khazri can be a matchwinner.
Look out, too, for two other skilful attacking midfielders who have both also spent the season on loan at French clubs and may be trying extra hard to push themselves near the front of the transfer window: Saif-Eddine Khaoui, owned by Marseille, but who came up with some great performances for Troyes despite the club’s relegation; and more notably Naïm Sliti, loaned by Lille to Dijon, where – just around the time that Msakni sustained his injury – he hit stellar form, ending the season with four goals and two assists in the season’s final six matches.
How far will they go?
Msakni’s injury has hit the country’s hopes of making progress hard, and Maaloul has spent the last few months acting as a PR man, trying to raise the morale of the country. On the bright side, having been drawn in the same group as Belgium and England, the Eagles of Carthage have little to lose as they are not expected to reach the second round.
They should certainly be aiming to achieve their first win since their very first World Cup match – 3-1 against Mexico in 1978 – when they meet Panama. Then any points gained against the two group favourites will be a big bonus. They would love to repeat their draw against Belgium in 2002; and Khazri will no doubt be particularly motivated to get one over on England, and to show David Moyes et al that he may not have been given a fair whack at Sunderland.
What should we watch out for?
If he gets a good amount of game time, young defensive midfielder Ellyes Skhiri could really start attracting some of Europe’s bigger clubs. Only 23, he has not only established himself in Montpellier’s team, but also become the go-to captain when veteran defender Hilton is rested. A combative ball-playing defensive shield with a great temperament, he doesn’t score often but when he does, more often than not they’re 25-yard peaches curled into the top corner.