By Maher Mezahi
Twelve months is a long time in the footballing world. A year ago, Tunisian football had hit its nadir. After starting strongly in the preliminary rounds of the 2014 World Cup qualifying, Tunisia were a draw away from the World Cup Qualifying play-off rounds. Cape Verde, stood in their way, but very few teams come to North Africa and win, so the odds were heavily stacked in Tunisia’s favour.
In the wake of the Arab spring, political insecurity dictated that the authorities only allowed 5 000 strong in the Olympic Stadium in Rades. Two first half goals by Platini and Heldon dropped jaws around the continent. The Blue Sharks had clipped Carthage Eagle wings. Coach Nabil Maaloul resigned immediately after the final whistle. A week after the humiliation, the Tunisian federation were alerted to the fact that Cape Verde had fielded an ineligible player, so the North Africans advanced on a technicality, only to lose to a very average Cameroon side under the brief tenure of Ruud Krol.
Successive embarrassments called for a thorough overhaul of style and personnel, but a single coaching appointment seems to have turned Tunisia’s fortunes for the better. In August, Georges Leekens was hired to try and take the Carthage Eagles to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. Leekens’ CV includes North African experience after a spell managing Algeria for in 2003, qualifying them for the 2004 Cup of Nations.
Tunisia do have a favourable draw to look forward to, up against Cape Verde, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Group B. All hoping to advance from an evenly matched pool whose candidates are familiar one another. Tunisia will seek to exact revenge on Cape Verde after the aforementioned humiliation in Rades, while Zambia and Cape Verde squared off in Group F of the 2015 AFCON qualifiers.
Though he has employed an assortment of tactical schemes, Leekens does seem to prefer a 5-3-2 for its defensive solidity and ability to quickly counterattack. Buccaneering fullbacks Hamza Mathlouthi and Ali Maaloul will flank Aymen Abdennour, Syam Ben Youssef, and Bilel Mohsni in defence.
Competition in central midfield is more intense, but Ferjani Sassi and Hocine Ragued have struck a harmonious relationship, with the latter sitting in front of defence, and the former expressing his creative passing abilities. Yassine Chikhaoui is Tunisia’s main attacking conduit, and he has built a complementary rapport with the likes of Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni.
Attacking midfield – In attacking midfield, Tunisia have nothing to envy from anyone on the continent. Captain Yassine Chikhaoui has finally overcome a debilitating injury spell and is one of the most in-form players in Europe. Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Msakni are gamechangers in the their own rights. Khazri offers exquisite wingplay replete with precise crossing and pinpoint direct free-kicks. Msakni’s ability to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat is well documented with recent game-winning goals.
Strikers – If there’s weakness in this Tunisian outfit it is their paucity of in-form strikers. Amine Chermiti, and Hamza Younes have failed to seize their opportunity to spearhead the attack. The lack of genuine striking options means Tunisia won’t have the cutting edge necessary to trouble opposition defensive lines.
Yassine Chikhaoui – Flying under the radar, Yassine Chikhaoui has been one of Europe’s most underrated performers at club level. The former ES Sahel midfielder is now disputing his eighth season with FC Zurich, and 2014/15 has been his most fruitful campaign. Chikhaoui has scored 11 goals and pitched in with 9 assists in all competitions, and led Tunisia in scoring during AFCON qualifying with 2 goals.
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Aymen Mathlouli – The goalkeeping position is one of the few that is up for grabs. Aymen Mathlouthi has played most matches, despite poor performances in the Tunisian Ligue. Moez Ben Cherifia of ES Tunis, is a young shot-stopper with enough experience to usurp Mathlouthi’s between the sticks. Leekens will surely pencil in his number 1 goalkeeper during pre-tournament friendlies.
Georges Leekens – Leekens’ pragmatic philosophy places a premium on victory by whatever means necessary. During the qualification campaign, The Belgian coach used a 4-3-3, 5-3-2, and a diamond 4-4-2 against different opposition, and in each match Tunisia held a tactical advantage. But the 65- years-old has never coached at an Africa Cup of Nations. Climate and pitch conditions could present problems for the Tunisians who are used to temperate weather and level pitches.
Semi-finalists – The Carthage Eagles are the side with the least number of weaknesses in Group B and will take advantage of a lenient draw that will pit them against runners-up of a relatively weak Group A.