Everyone welcome Tunisia back to the World Cup! They haven’t been here since 2006, and they will go to Russia seeking to win their first Wold Cup match in 40 years. They, uh, probably won’t get it.
Since qualifying for the World Cup, basically everything has gone wrong for Tunisia. First they were tossed into a group in which they will have to try and fend off Belgium and England in their attempts to advance, and then the team’s best player went down with a knee injury.
Youssef Msakni was the heart of Tunisia’s midfield and was expected to be the team’s most reliable source of creative, attacking play. He tore a ligament in his knee in April, though, and will miss the entire World Cup. Tunisia were probably already fucked before Msakni went down, but now they are super-fucked. If you don’t believe me, just ask the team’s manager, who told reporters that playing without Msakni would be like Argentina having to play without Messi. So, yeah, it’s going to be ugly.
If Tunisia have any hope of winning a game, it is in Panama’s World Cup inexperience and England’s tendency to melt down in spectacular fashion during international tournaments. Tunisia’s first game is against the Three Lions, and a win would elicit a truly apocalyptic reaction from the England faithful. It’s unlikely to happen, but don’t put anything past an England squad in the World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al-Shabab), Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Batin), Mouez Hassen (Châteauroux)
Defenders: Syam Ben Youssef (Kasımpaşa), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), Rami Bedoui (Étoile du Sahel), Dylan Bronn (Gent), Ali Maâloul (Al Ahly), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalaek)
Midfielders: Saîf-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nassr), Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Étoile du Sahel), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), Bassem Srarfi (Nice), Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance), Naïm Sliti (Dijon)
Forwards: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ettifaq), Anice Badri (Espérance), Saber Khalifa (Club African)
The Eagles of Carthage
Skhiri is a 22-year-old defensive midfielder who plays his club soccer for Montpellier in France’s top league. He came up through Montpellier’s youth system and has quickly established himself as a mainstay in the team’s midfield, qualifying him as something of a young stud.
Born in France to Tunisian parents, Skhiri has played well enough that an eventual call up to the French national team wasn’t totally out of the question, at least in his mind. Or at least that’s the assumed reason why he previously denied multiple call ups from Tunisia in what looked like an effort to keep his international options open. But that was all put to bed last winter, when Skhiri finally committed himself to his parents’ home country.
At 6-foot-1 Skhiri cuts an imposing figure in the defensive midfield, and is particularly adept at cutting off passing lanes and intercepting the ball. He’s not a very well-known player outside of France, but if there is anyone on this Tunisian squad who should be looking to show out and attract the attention of of bigger clubs around the world, it’s Skhiri. Look for him to be snapping into tackles at every opportunity, looking to prove that he can hang with the big boys that Belgium and England are going to throw his way.
Khazri is one of the few players on the Tunisian squad who has Premier League pedigree, though that pedigree comes from a few disappointing seasons playing for bum-ass Sunderland. After failing to impress as a winger at Sunderland, he was sent on loan to French side Rennes last season, where he underwent a revitalization of sorts.
The key to Khazri’s bounce-back season, in which he scored nine goals in 24 appearances, was a positional switch that saw him convert from a winger into a primary striker. The good news for Khazri is that he’s set up to keep riding the momentum of that switch into the World Cup. With alternative striking option Taha Yassine out with an injury, manager Nabil Maâloul has turned to Khazri and installed him as the team’s center forward.
With Msakni out, it will fall on Khazri to be the team’s brightest star. He’s unlikely to carry them to any sort of World Cup glory, but he is entering the tournament in great form and could very well bag a goal or two before things are said and done.
Another good reason to keep an eye on Khazri is that he’s a bit of a hothead. Here he is just straight up sucker-punching a guy during a game in 2016:
You can’t do that!
Without Msakni, Tunisia don’t really have any choice but to pack it in and try to steal a game by getting everyone behind the ball and then hoping to snatch a goal or two on the counter attack.
Maâloul has recently opted for five defenders in qualifying matches, putting his team in a 5-3-2 formation that has yielded decent results. He’ll most likely stick with that formation in an effort to deal with all the attacking power that Belgium and England will be unleashing. They may be able to loosen things up against Panama, though, and switch back to a more classic 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
All times Eastern
June 18, Tunisia vs. England 2 p.m. at Volgograd Arena
June 23, Tunisia vs. Belgium 8 a.m. at Spartak Stadium
June 28, Tunisia vs. Panama 2 p.m. at Mordovia Arena