How will Tunisia cope without missing talisman Youssef Msakni?
By Charlotte Marsh with Souhail Khmira
Last Updated: 18/06/18 9:05am
Tunisia are preparing to take on England in their World Cup Group G opener, but they will be without talismanic forward Youssef Msakni. How will they cope without him?
Tunisia manager Nabil Maaloul is a victim of foreshadowing. In March, ahead of friendlies against Iran and Costa Rica, he said of Msakni: "Tunisia without Msakni? It is as if Argentina was playing without Lionel Messi or Portugal without Cristiano Ronaldo. He's a very important player."
The 27-year-old was in the squad but did not feature during either game - both of which Tunisia won 1-0 - most likely to protect him from injury in non-competitive fixtures ahead of the summer tournament. The irony of the decision is now palpable.
Fast forward a few weeks and Msakni suffered a cruciate ligament injury while playing in a league match for his Qatari club, Al-Duhail, which threw his World Cup hopes into doubt. While Tunisia initially hoped he would be fit in time, he was not named in the initial 29-man squad last month and will miss the Russia showpiece.
Following his injury, he posted on Instagram: "It was meant to be, but I thank God anyway. I'm very sad about the injury that will deprive me from continuing with Al Duhil, the National Team and the World Cup."
It is certainly a blow for the Tunisian national team, who relied on the winger during a tough qualification campaign in Africa, topping Group A with an unbeaten campaign against DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. Indeed, DR Congo almost denied them a place at their fifth World Cup as they finished just one point behind with the same goal difference.
There is no doubt that Msakni was key in securing Tunisia's spot in Russia. He scored a hat-trick against Guinea in 4-1 away win in October and picked up an assist during a decisive 2-2 draw against DR Congo, and Tunisian sports journalist Souhail Khmira says his injury dashed the hopes fans had of an extended World Cup run.
|Position||Left wing/offensive midfield|
He told Sky Sports: "It was a gut-wrenching feeling for most Tunisians as they watched their beloved Msakni being carried out of the pitch in the 61st minute in the game against Al Sailiya.
"The news of this injury weighed heavily on Tunisians, who were left in disbelief.
"Msakni's injury has sparked somewhat of an outrage on Tunisian social media, with some calling the decision to put him on the pitch "foolish", "irresponsible" and "uncalled for" especially with so much at stake for the Tunisians, whose hopes for a good World Cup run seemed to be shattered."
But Tunisia are not to be underestimated ahead of their opener against England on June 18 in Volgograd, even without their star player. They are currently ranked 14th in the world by FIFA - one behind Gareth Southgate's side - and have picked up two good draws in their build-up to the World Cup against Portugal and Turkey.
"Tunisia without Msakni? It is as if Argentina was playing without Lionel Messi or Portugal without Cristano Ronaldo. He's a very important player."
Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul on the forward
They return to the tournament after a 12-year absence following three successive appearances between 1998 and 2006 plus their maiden World Cup in 1978 where they won their only game at the competition to date - a 3-1 victory against Mexico.
England have previously faced Tunisia at the World Cup in France '98, with the Three Lions emerging 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes in Marseille. There has been one other previous encounter between the two sides - a 1-1 draw in an international friendly in June 1990.
Although Msakni is the "MVP" for Tunisia, Khmira believes the side can still be competitive even without the winger as they look to make it past the group stages for the first time in their history.
"We have seven forwards in the squad and they're all very good. Wahbi Khazri was excellent as a false nine in the last two friendlies.
"Naim Sliti, Saber Khalifa, Anice Badri, Ilyes Skhiri are all great players that I'm confident will be more than capable of filling the gap, especially with a strong midfield at their back. With names like Ferjani Sassi, Ahmed Khalil, Ghaylen Chaalali, Mohamed Amin Ben Amor and others, it seems like a solid group.
World Cup team profile: Tunisia
All you need to know about Tunisia ahead of this summer's World Cup.
"Even without Msakni, I'm quite satisfied with the squad. I've seen the players from outside the Tunisian league and I was very satisfied with their performance back in March. I've also watched the ones from the Tunisian league and they are some of the best names here.
"If I were to take a step back and look at the squad, I would dare say that I wouldn't notice Msakni's absence."
Time will tell if Msakni's absence will take its toll on the Tunisia team as they look elsewhere for their spark and although they have proven before that they can cope without him in friendly fixtures, the World Cup presents an entirely different prospect.