Manager: Nabil Maaloul.
Group: Group G.
Other teams in group: England, Belgium and Panama
Manager Nabil Maaloul’s World Cup plans were hit in April when Tunisia’s playmaker Youssef Mskani was ruled out of the tournament after sustaining a knee ligament injury whilst playing for his club Al-Duhail in the Qatari League. Mskani, who scored a hat-trick in Tunisia’s penultimate qualifier which was a 4-1 win away at Guinea, is a huge loss to the squad.
His forced omission was described by manager Maaloul as the equivalent of Argentina being without Lionel Messi such is the importance “Les Aigles du Carthage” placed in his creative abilities.
In Mskani’s absence Wahbri Khazri an attacking midfielder converted to a striker, who scored 11 goals in 29 appearances on loan at Ligue Une side Rennes from Sunderland last season, could lead the attack. Alongside him will likely be Nice’s Naim Sliti if Maaloul opts for a 4-4-2 as they did for a recent 2-2 friendly draw with Portugal.
Maaloul however deployed an ultra-defensive 4-5-1 formation and conceded 72% of possession and an 84thgoal in a 1-0 defeat to Spain in Krasnodar last Saturday night. Sliti ploughed a lone furrow in attack last weekend and that lineup may very well be close to what takes the field next Saturday evening against England in their Group G opener.
Tunisia’s squad contains five domestic based players with seven based in France. Aside from Khazri, Yohan Benalouane from Leicester City is the only other English based player. Gent central defender Dylan Bronn, who is of Tunisian descent through his mother, will be expected to partner Syam Ben Youssef of Turkish SuperLig side Kasimpasa at the heart of the defence.
The side is captained by the oldest member of the squad, 33 year old goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi who plays with Al Batin in the Saudi Premier League.
The Squad in full
Goalkeepers: Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Baten, KSA), Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al-Shabab, KSA), Moez Hassen (Chateauroux, FRA)
Defenders: Rami Bedoui (ES Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City, ENG), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa, TUR), Dylan Bronn (Gent, BEL), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon, FRA) , Ali Maaloul (Al-Ahly, EGY), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek, EGY)
Midfielders: Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli, KSA), Sai-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes, FRA), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier, FRA), Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nasr, KSA), Ghaylene Chaalali (ES Tunis)
Forwards: Anice Badri (ES Tunis), Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ittifaq, KSA), Naim Sliti (Dijon, FRA), Bassem Srarfi (Nice, FRA), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes, FRA), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain)
HOW THEY GOT THERE
40 teams commenced African qualification in 2015 where two knockout rounds were played before 20 teams progressed to play off in five groups of four teams with the winners of each group progressing to Russia. After defeating Mauritania 4-2 on aggregate, Tunisia went on to finish unbeaten and top of a group comprising of DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.
A rather underwhelming scoreless draw at home to Libya on the final day of qualification was enough to finish one point clear of DR Congo and one imagines that a similar conservative approach will be deployed against England and Belgium
KEY PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR
The 23-year-old, who has just four international caps, had an excellent season in France with Montpellier and became club captain at the beginning of last season. Despite been capped at underage level by Tunisia, the French born midfielder only pledged his international future to the country of his parents after they had achieved qualification for Russia. Securing Shkiri’s commitment was a major coup for Maaloul and will help bolster his midfield for the forthcoming tournament.
The Corsican born Khazri represents Tunisia’s main attacking hope in this tournament in the absence of Mskani. Khazri plays with Rennes as an attacking midfielder however such is the lack of firepower in Maaloul’s squad it is possible he will be played as a lone front man in Russian.
His absence due to a thigh injury from recent friendlies against Portugal, Spain and Turkey was a cause for minor alarm. He will be needed most for the final game against Panama that Tunisia will be looking to win and if his defensive colleagues have obliged in the earlier two games against England and Belgium, it will be his firepower they will be relying on here to potentially help them qualify for the last 16.
Probably not the most popular member of the squad, the 30-year-old Leicester City defender and former French U-21 international, only made himself available for selection after Tunisia had secured qualification despite multiple requests over the years from the TFF to commit to the country of his father.
Whilst it is obvious to accuse him of opportunism, the bottom line is Maaloul needs experienced defenders who are playing in Europe and it is likely Benalouane will start against England.
However since joining Leicester from Atlanta in August 2015, Benalouane has only been involved in 15 games with most appearances as substitute so match practice is an issue. Known for a rash streak and is hardly going to be at his sharpest, this is a high risk addition to the squad by Maaloul and one doesn’t hold high hopes of it having a positive influence.
WHERE ARE THEY PLAYING AND STAYING (Kick-Offs are at Irish Time)
18 June 18 - Tunisia v England (7pm, Volgograd Arena).
23 June 23 – Tunisia v Belgium (1pm, Otkrytiye Arena, Moscow).
28 June 28 – Tunisia v Panama (7pm, Mordovia Arena, Saransk).
Base Camp: Moscow region
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THEM
This is Tunisia’s fifth time qualifying for the World Cup finals, their maiden finals appearance at Argentina in 1978 saw them record their only victory which was a 3-1 defeat of Mexico. Between 1998 and 2006, they had a streak of three world cup qualifications but have never progressed beyond the first round, Draws with Romania (1998), Belgium (2002) and Saudi Arabia (2006) are all they have to show for their efforts
In recent years we have had some links between the League of Ireland and North Africa with the much travelled striker Eamon Zayed winning eight caps for Libya from 2011 to 2015 during his time at Shamrock Rovers, Sligo Rovers and notably Tehran powerhouse Persepolis who themselves are suppling two players to the Iranian World Cup squad.
More recently Ayman Ben Mohommed, who started his career at St, Joseph’s Boys, was called up for the Tunisian national team for a friendly against Botswana in 2016 after a string of impressive performances for Bohemians. Previously of UCD and Longford Town, Ayman moved to two times CAF Champions League winners Esperance Sportive de Tunis shortly afterwards where he continues to establish himself in the team playing two games last season.
THEIR RECENT FORM
Unbeaten in their last ten games before the 1-0 defeat by Spain last Saturday, Tunisia are showing that they will provide very difficult opposition for England in next Monday night’s opener. Earlier this year they had two consecutive 1-0 wins over fellow finalists Iran and Costa Rica. A notable 2-2 away in Braga against Portugal was followed up with an identical result in controversial circumstances on neutral territory against Turkey
First game: Tunisia v England (18June), Volgograd Arena.