Few will forget the scenes from two years ago when Tunisia, who had progressed through the group stage unbeaten and looked set for a deep run into the tournament, were knocked out by the host nation after a controversial stoppage time penalty and an extra time winner from Javier Balboa. It was devastating for the Carthage Eagles, who had entered the tournament with high expectations as always, but exited prematurely against opposition they really ought to have beaten comfortably.
Qualifying soon followed, and as usual Tunisia got back into their stride quite quickly against lesser opposition, beating Djibouti 8-1 in their first game. A shock defeat to Liberia followed, though, and things were still hairy until the final game in Monastir, when they avenged the defeat to end the minnows’ hopes of qualifying and secure their own place in Gabon. It was less comfortable than two years previously, but that they made it is all that matters.
For now at least. After tipping them to do well last time, one will have to be more cautious for the 2017 edition. Despite the return of Henryk Kasperczak, things don’t seem quite as convincing. Even in winning their opening two World Cup qualifiers, the results weren’t as comfortable as could perhaps be expected. In Gabon they will once again be leaning heavily on their defence, and they have a tough group. They will again go in as one of the favourites, but it remains unclear whether they are on the level of the best African teams or just below.
Tunisia have tended to play a 5-4-1 in recent months, and most of the back six seems relatively settled. The captain Aymen Mathlouthi is still comfortably the first choice goalkeeper, and in front of him Abdennour is about as safe a choice in the defence as you’re going to get here. Syam Ben Youssef and one other will probably sit alongside him at centre-back, while Maaloul will be the left-back. A combination of Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Hamza Lahmar will start in the middle of the park. In attack, Kasperczak has plenty of options, though Khazri is a near-certainty. Up front, Taha Khenissi seems to be the favoured option ahead of Ahmed Akaichi and Saber Khalifa.
The defence – Both Tunisia sides and Kasperczak sides have been traditionally been well-organised, so the logic is clear. Mathlouthi remains a key part of this defence as one of the better African goalkeepers, and in Aymen Abdennour, now with Valencia in La Liga, they have one of the outstanding defenders at this competition. In qualifying they conceded only three goals, two of which came in comfortable wins – the two clean sheets against Togo were vital to progression – and they are yet to concede in their World Cup group.
Lack of a regular goalscorer – Tunisia have never really replaced record goalscorer Issam Jemaa; it is now three years since he scored his 36th and last international goal. Wahbi Khazri is currently the highest-scoring active player with 10 goals, but he’s a winger. Their top scorer in the qualifying group was Yassine Chikhaoui, who scored a hat trick in the first game against Djibouti and nothing else. Of the 16 goals they scored in qualifying, eight came in one game. We have seen teams do well at AFCON in the past just nabbing the odd goal, but Tunisia aren’t going to win the tournament relying on Khazri.
Wahbi Khazri – At 25, Khazri is now his country’s main man, so often a supplier or finisher. In a team that will probably be looking to grind out results, his creativity is going to be hugely important in finding the decisive goals if Tunisia are going to progress out of a tough group and beyond.
The Hipster’s Choice
Youssef Msakni – Still only 26, Msakni is best known for his stunning winning goal against Algeria in the 2013 tournament. However, despite his prodigious talents, the Lekhwiya attacker has been in and out of the squad, being recalled to the squad for the first time since June. Still a potential match-winner.
Henryk Kasperczak – One of the veterans of the African scene, Poland international Kasperczak first managed Tunisia between 1994 and 1998, taking them to the World Cup. Since then he has coached Morocco, Senegal and, most recently, a second stint in Mali. A sound appointment but his teams don’t play particularly attractive football.
By The Numbers (courtesy of We Global Football)
- Opened 2017 with a 2-0 win over Uganda in their Jan 4th warm-up friendly.
- Department of Defence – The Carthage Eagles conceded a mere 1 goal across 7 games in 2016.
- The match against Algeria is likely to settle who advances. Their last 3 games against The Fennecs: 1 Win, 1 Draw, 1 Loss.
- Undefeated in their last four games against Senegal and Algeria with a 3-1 advantage in goals scored.
- Unlucky not to make the 2015 semifinals, Tunisia was eliminated by host Equatorial Guinea in extra time after conceding a penalty in stoppage time.
- Tunisia is projected to finish 3rd in Group B with an average point projection of 4.03.
- Odds of becoming African champions for the first time since 2004: 18 to 1.
Quarter-finalists – In theory they should be built well for knockout football, but they are likely to meet the hosts in the quarter-finals, and we all know what happened last time…