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World Cup preview: Tunisia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the chances of Tunisia as they look for their first win at the tournament since 1978.

Tunisia will make their return to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years this summer, and they are a nation who hold a unique place in the competition's history.

The Carthage Eagles were the first African nation to win a match on the biggest stage in football in 1978, although that remains their one and only World Cup victory from four previous tournaments.

The Tunisia team line up before their friendly game with Turkey on June 1, 2018© Reuters

An unbeaten qualifying campaign may give them hope of at least improving that record this summer, though, and as a team that until this month was ranked 14th in the world - at that stage just one behind England - they may be setting their sights even higher.

Here, Sports Mole assesses Tunisia's chances in Russia.


GROUP

Tunisia's relatively lofty place in the FIFA rankings, which had them above the likes of Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia, the Netherlands and Italy until the updates for June, suggests that they should have a decent shout at challenging for qualification from Group G.

World Cup Group G

The draw has been unkind to Tunisia in placing them alongside Belgium and England, though, both of whom will be expected to battle it out for top spot and certainly occupy the two qualification places.

If Nabil Maaloul is to change the natural order then his side will need to produce an upset in one of their opening two games, with their easiest match on paper not coming until the final round of group fixtures when they take on tournament debutants Panama.

TUNISIA FIXTURES

June 18: Tunisia vs. England (7pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd)
June 23: Belgium vs. Tunisia (1pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)
June 28: Panama vs. Tunisia (7pm, Mordovia Arena, Saransk)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Tunisia enjoyed an unbeaten qualifying campaign for the first time since 2002 ahead of this summer's World Cup, dropping just four points from their eight outings.

Victories home and away against Mauritania saw the Carthage Eagles ease into the second phase of qualifying, where they were drawn in a group alongside Guinea, Libya and Congo DR.

Tunisia's players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

It was by no means the most difficult group they could have got, but Tunisia still had to ensure that there were no slip-ups, and victories over each team in their opening three games put them in complete control of the group.

That 100% record ended when they came from two goals down to draw 2-2 with their closest challengers Congo DR, before a 4-1 win over Guinea left them needing only a point from their final game to seal their place in Russia.

A goalless draw with Libya completed the job, with Congo DR finishing just one point behind as their failure to hold on to their lead against Tunisia proved crucial.


RECENT FORM

Despite being written off as no-hopers ahead of their fifth tournament participation, Tunisia have gone a long way to showing just why they have been highly placed in the FIFA rankings.

Since the turn of the year, the North African nation have edged out fellow finalists Iran and Costa Rica, while also battling to a 2-2 draw with European champions Portugal in a match they trailed 2-0 in.

Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef celebrates scoring their second goal against Portugal during their World Cup warm-up match in June 2018© Reuters

The 2-2 draw with Turkey earlier this month offered further proof that they can score goals, but conceding so late on to rumoured Arsenal target Caglar Soyuncu was a bit of a blow.

Tunisia's final warm-up match was played in Krasnador nine days before their World Cup opener against England, falling to a respectable late 1-0 loss at the hands of heavyweights Spain.

Punching above their weight is something that Maaloul's men thrive off, and the draw in Braga shows exactly what they are capable of when underestimated.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab), Moez Hassen (Chateauroux), Aymen Mathlouthi (Al Baten).

Defenders: Rami Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Dylan Bronn (Gent), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek).

Midfielders: Anice Badri (Esperance), Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al Ahli Riyadh), Ghaylene Chaalali (Esperance), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Saifeddine Khaoui (Troyes), Ferjani Sassi (Al Nasr), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), Naim Sliti (Dijon), Bassem Srarfi (Nice).

Forwards: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al Ittifaq), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes).


STAR PLAYER - Naim Sliti

Naim Sliti in action for Tunisia on March 27, 2018© Reuters

Considered one of the rising stars of African football, Naim Sliti is a name that could become a little more recognisable come the end of the World Cup.

The Lille attacking midfielder, who has spent time on loan at Dijon, boasts the ability to dribble past an opponent and could catch the eye with his dazzling displays down the left-hand side in Russia.

Wahbi Khazri is coming off the back of a good campaign for Rennes, and also played a key part in Tunisia's qualification campaign, but Sliti is more of an unknown quantity and could catch teams by surprise.

Fielding the 25-year-old can come at a risk, with Tunisia potentially being left exposed, though in the match against Panama in particular his trickery will be needed more than ever.


MANAGER - Nabil Maaloul

Tunisia manager Nabil Maaloul on June 1, 2018© Reuters

A two-time assistant for the Tunisian national team before getting the main job himself, Maaloul enjoyed success as the number two when he helped Tunisia to the 2004 African Cup of Nations title.

Further success followed at club level, where the bulk of his managerial career came with hometown club ES Tunis, whom he led to an historic treble in 2011 when they won the league, cup and CAF Champions League titles.

Maaloul also spent the majority of his playing career with Tunis, helping them to 10 trophies including six league titles, in addition to being a stalwart of the Tunisian midfield during a 10-year and 74-cap international career.

The 55-year-old, who took over as Tunisia boss in April 2017, had previous international experience at coaching level from his time in charge of the Kuwait national team from 2014 to 2017.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Group stages (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)

Jaouhar Mnari celebrates scoring the first goal for Tunisia against Spain at the 2006 World Cup© Reuters

Russia 2018 will be Tunisia's fifth appearance at a World Cup, but they have never progressed beyond the group stages before and it is now 40 years since they picked up their only win at the tournament.

That historic triumph - the first by an African nation in the World Cup - came in their very first outing when they came from behind to beat Mexico 3-1, but they then lost to Poland and even a creditable draw with West Germany in their final group game was not enough to save them from elimination.

Tunisia finished bottom of their group with just one point in 1998 and 2002 - when they coincidentally were drawn alongside England and Belgium respectively - and once again only managed a solitary point in 2006, although on that occasion it was enough to finish third.

Overall Tunisia have played 12 matches at the World Cup, winning one, drawing four and losing seven with eight goals scored and 17 against.


PREDICTION

Tunisia have the potential to be something of a surprise package at this World Cup on the basis of their FIFA ranking and recent form, but they have been drawn in a group alongside Belgium and England so may have to make do with third place.

VERDICT: Third in Group G

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