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Why underestimating Tunisia could be England’s next big tournament mistake

The Three Lions will face a tougher test in their first group game than many had originally thought

We’re all expecting England to at least get out of their group, right?

The World Cup is upon us and with it the cheap bunting from Euro 92 has reappeared in pubs across the country.

Every England fan is (for some bizarre reason) filled with pure unjustified optimism that we can go all the way in Russia this summer.


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Just look at this #passion, how can we not win it?

Getty - Contributor
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Just look at this #passion, how can we not win it?

Allow us to swiftly burst that bubble however and tell you that we might not even get out of our group.

On first reflection, it seems as though England’s toughest test will come against Belgium in their final group game on June 28.

It turns out however that the opposition Gareth Southgate’s side will face first in Russia, might actually be the real banana skin around which we should be stepping carefully.

We profile Tunisia, who could dent England’s World Cup chances before they’ve even really started.

Some background

The Three Lions face Tunisia in their first game in Group G in Volgograd.

The Carthage Eagles, who are returning to the World Cup finals after a 12-year absence, will meet England again for the first time since the Three Lions won 2-0 when the sides last met in 1998.

Ranked 14th in the World, just one place behind the Three Lions, Tunisia are the highest ranked African side at the World Cup and certainly won’t be short of confidence.

#SquadGoals

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#SquadGoals

Tunisia played out a 2-2 stalemate with Portugal in one of their recent friendlies, coming back from two goals down to earn themselves a hard-fought draw.

If they can reach that level against opposition of Portugal’s calibre, then they’ll have no doubts that they can repeat those heroics against England.

What is their style of play? 

Nabil Malloul has been in charge of Tunisia since April 2017 and guided his side through their qualifying campaign in impressive fashion.

Better than Pep

Reuters
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Better than Pep

Tunisia were unbeaten in their six World Cup qualifiers, winning four, drawing twice and conceding just four goals in the process.

In their World Cup warm-up match against European champions Portugal they lined up in a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation.

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Tunisia are widely regarded as favouring a possession based style of play, and have technically gifted players sprinkled throughout the side.

Wide attackers Anice Badri and Naim Sliti were given license to roam against Portugal, with Saif-Edinne Khaoui finding space and pulling the strings from the CAM position.

Despite lacking any immediately notable names, with Leicester’s Yohan Benalouane likely to be the most familiar to Premier League fans, Tunisia are far more accomplished than many believe.

This photo would hint why we don’t see him much at Leicester

PA:Empics Sport
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This photo would hint why we don’t see him much at Leicester

Who are their danger men?

England’s first opponents will be without their star man and most influential player, Youssef Msakni.

The creative winger has been ruled out of the World Cup with a cruciate ligament injury (CC: Manuel Lanzini), a scenario that Maaloul had feared, stating “Tunisia without Msakni? It’s as if Argentina was playing without Messi.”

Better than Messi

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Better than Messi

In the absence of their talisman Msakni, and with Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri facing a race against time to be fit, the man tasked with inspiring the side will be Khaoui.

The 23-year-old midfielder, who has represented France at Under-18 and Under-21 level, pledged his international future to the Carthage Eagles earlier this year.

The decision of Khaoui vindicates the recruitment structure that has been in place since Maaloul took over, with a conscious effort now being made to bring in the very best French-born players.

He can make defenders look silly

AFP or licensors
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He can make defenders look silly

How could they hurt England?

Tunisia’s primary aim against Portugal was to feed their trident of attacking midfielders as quickly as possible.

If given time on the ball, Khaoui, Sliti and Badri will cause England problems with their creativity and speed.

Sliti and Badri showed their telepathic link-up when they combined well for the first goal against Portugal, a string of clever passes between the pair ending with the latter finishing well.

The pair have a certain understanding on the pitch

Reuters
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The pair have a certain understanding on the pitch

The second goal, which was scored by substitute Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, came from an in-swinging cross from the right.

If England’s wing-backs are caught too high up the pitch then it could prove costly, with Tunisia posing a real threat from wide areas.

What are their weaknesses?

England can draw inspiration from the success that Portugal’s high press had against Tunisia, especially in the first half.

The Tunisian defenders are far from composed in possession and, if put under well-executed pressure by Southgate’s front players, they could be found wanting.

The inexperience of Mouez Hassen, who represented France at youth level before opting to play for Tunisia, could also be exposed in Russia.

He does know that he can pick up that ball… right?

PA:Empics Sport
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He does know that he can pick up that ball… right?

Hassen, who will be the No1 goalkeeper in Russia, bizarrely joined Southampton on loan in January 2017, failing to make a single first-team appearance for the Saints.

When having to deal with the pace from Portugal’s forward players, Tunisia struggled to cope, with this weakness exposed on the first goal they conceded.


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A simple run on the wing from Ricardo Quaresma went unchallenged from Tunisia and the Portugal man was given time to pick out Andre Silva to score.

With Southgate’s side stockpiled with a plethora of speedy forwards, he should definitely be taking note of that particular chink in their armour.

“Look, just get the ball and run!”

Reuters
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“Look, just get the ball and run!”

How likely is an upset?

England would be wise to take the threat that Tunisia pose very, very seriously.

There is a widespread expectation amongst supporters that the first two group games, first against Tunisia, followed up by the walk in the park against Panama, are both just prequels to the big one against Belgium.

In reality, Southgate’s side shouldn’t even be thinking past Tunisia yet.

In doing so, they risk a serious threat of repeating the Algeria fiasco at the World Cup in 2010, when the Three Lions slumped to an embarrassing 0-0 draw.

What an awful, awful day this was

News Group Newspapers Ltd
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What an awful, awful day this was

Or, even worse, the horror-show against Iceland in Euro 2016.

Let’s not do this again, please

News Group Newspapers Ltd
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Let’s not do this again, please

The nation is watching, no pressure, lads… 


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