Tunis – Tunisia will be fielding a team at the World Cup of several foreign-born players after creative forward Youssef Msakni was sidelined with injury.
Msakni carried the team to its fifth World Cup, and had a hat trick in the penultimate qualifier in Guinea, but he injured his knee while playing for his Qatari club. So Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul is expected to rely on foreign-born players in a move that could unsettle a team that went unbeaten in qualifying.
Tunisia’s squad is a mix of players mainly from the Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, France and domestic leagues.
Here’s a closer look at the Tunisia team:
Maaloul was an assistant under Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations in 2002. He took over from Henri Kasperczak two matches into World Cup qualifying for his second stint as coach after a brief tenure in 2013.
Maaloul played for Tunisia for a decade until 1995. One of very few African coaches in charge of a national team, he has transformed Tunisia from a fairly dour, defensive outfit to one more willing to attack since he took over after the African Cup of Nations in early 2017.
He needs to ensure the decision to bring in new players at the expense of some of the men who got Tunisia to the World Cup doesn’t upset the team balance or alienate squad members.
Maaloul’s biggest decision may be the first name on the sheet.
Aymen Mathlouthi, an 11-year veteran, is beginning to show frailties and can no longer be certain of his starting spot.
Maaloul must figure out whether to drop the captain and sacrifice experience for 28-year-old Farouk Ben Mustapha, who has been highly-praised in the Saudi league. Moez Hassen, who has seen action in Tunisia’s World Cup warm-ups, is also an option.
Maaloul said he was leaning toward starting the World Cup with the formation used in friendly wins over Iran and Costa Rica in March. That would see 22-year-old French-born Ellyes Skhiri, who made his debut against Iran after a late call-up, start in central defense. Skhiri is an option in central midfield, too.
Other contenders for center back are 24-year-old home-based player Yassine Meriah, the experienced Syam Ben Youssef, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Leicester’s Yohan Benalouane.
If it’s a four-man back line, expect to see right back Dylan Bronn, another French-born newcomer. Ali Maaloul has been a regular on the left. Both can also operate as wingers in a five-man midfield if Tunisia goes with a three-man defense of big, strong center backs.
The challenge of filling the void left by Msakni will likely fall on France-born attacking midfielder Wahbi Khazri. He played for the Tunisia and France youth teams before committing to Tunisia and made the World Cup squad despite a recent thigh injury.
Khazri may be helped in midfield by Anice Badri and Naim Sliti. They are also versatile, operating as attacking midfielders or in a more advanced position in the forward line. Saif-Eddine Khaoui is a similar attack-minded midfielder who has forced himself into the team’s plans.
Ferjani Sassi has the role of shoring up the middle of the field as the holding midfielder.
Depending on whether and where Khazri, Badri, Sliti and newcomer Khaoui are deployed, there may be room for just one or perhaps no out-and-out strikers. The absence through injury of striker Taha Yassine Khenissi has further limited Tunisia’s options up front and the forward line in Russia — as with recent games — may be based on the versatility of the four attacking midfielders.
Tunisia plays England on Monday, then faces Belgium on June 23 before finishing Group G against Panama on June 28.
Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab), Moez Hassen (Chateauroux), Aymen Mathlouthi (Al Baten)
Defenders: Rami Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Dylan Bronn (Gent), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon), Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek)
Midfielders: Anice Badri (Esperance), Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al Ahli Riyadh), Ghaylene Chaalali (Esperance), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Saifeddine Khaoui (Troyes), Ferjani Sassi (Al Nasr), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), Naim Sliti (Dijon), Bassem Srarfi (Nice)
Forwards: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al Ittifaq), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes)