The Eagles of Carthage haven’t won a World Cup tie since 1978. But they will be fancying their chances on Monday as they take on the tournament’s ultimate chokers, England.
The last time the two teams met at a World Cup was in Marseille 20 years ago. It ended in a 2-0 win for England, though the fixture is best remembered for the massive brawl that broke out between drunken English fans and locals of Tunisian origin.
Ahead of tonight’s game, Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul has somewhat generously described the current England squad as better than the class of 1998, which boasted the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen.
"It is true they had Beckham, Owen, and other players but I do not think they had the osmosis they have now," Maaloul told reporters, adding that the Three Lions have also improved significantly since their dismal performance at Euro 2016.
"The current English team is much stronger than the one in 2016 so it's not going to be the same thing," said the former midfielder, who was at the stadium in Nice two years ago when England embarrassingly lost to Iceland 2-1.
Maaloul singled out midfielder Dele Alli as England’s “most dangerous weapon”. Cutting Alli off from his Tottenham teammate Harry Kane, the England captain, would be crucial to Tunisia’s chances, he added.
"If we manage to split this association on the pitch – that's what I told my players – it would be very good," he said. When asked whether his men would seek to test Alli's reputation for having a hot temper, Maaloul chuckled and replied: "You've given me a good idea! I had not thought of that."
Frayed tempers and ill-discipline have been England’s undoing in the past, including at the 1998 and 2016 World Cups, when red cards to Beckham and Wayne Rooney precipitated the team’s exit. On both occasions, the England players were easily provoked by their opponents.
Underestimating the opposition, while getting bogged down in endless chatter about past failures, is another trap England have slipped into all too often. While Tunisia’s pre-match interviews have focused on their prominent opponents, the talk in the England camp has been all about “us”, with the North Africans barely getting a mention.
Ultimately, Tunisia’s own strengths should be reason enough to feel they have a chance of qualifying from a group that also features Belgium and Panama.
In the absence of real strikers, Maaloul’s men will be relying on the firepower provided by Rennes’ attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri, who was instrumental to the Breton side’s successful campaign to qualify for Europa League this season. Hoping to feed Khazri up front, there will be plenty more Ligue 1 talent in the form of Dijon’s excellent Naïm Sliti and Montpellier’s French-born skipper Ellyes Skhiri, who dithered at length before pledging his international future to Tunisia earlier this year.
The Eagles of Carthage appeared to have suffered a shattering blow in April when their star player, Youssef Msakni, sustained a knee ligament injury. But a string of encouraging friendlies, including a 2-2 draw with Portugal and a narrow defeat to Spain, have reignited hope in the football-obsessed North African nation.
"Our team is ready," said Maaloul, pointing to the warm-up results. "We played well in friendlies and we expect to do the same here.”
Even if they fail to reach the knockout stages, a single win in Group G would be seen as a success for Tunisia. In four previous World Cup appearances, Tunisia have won only one game – against Mexico in 1978. With fellow African teams Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt all losing their opening games, Maaloul said it was up to Tunisia to carry the hopes of a continent.
"We have huge pressure given that we represent Africa, we represent the Arab world, and we represent 12 million Tunisians," he said – though adding that England, who won their only World Cup at home back in 1966, will be under just as much pressure to end 52 years of hurt.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2018-06-18