Tunisia is back at the World Cup under team boss Nabil Maaloul for the first time in 12 years, but a challenging group puts them in a tough spot right from the get-go. They take on England in the opener and need to steal a point if they hope to have any chance of moving on.
Maaloul, in his third spell as Tunisia coach, has built a solid, spirited team that is more than the sum of its largely unremarkable parts. Wahbi Khazri, who spent the season on loan at Rennes from Sunderland, will be under pressure to make the difference in attack with Msakni absent, though Dijon winger Naim Sliti is also capable of adding a touch of guile and thrust.
Tunisia are not quite the threat they would have been three months ago, but Belgium and England will underestimate them at their own peril.
World Cup appearances: Five
Best finish: Group stage in each tournament
Last World Cup: 2006
Goalkeepers: Aymen Mathlouthi (Al-Baten), Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al-Shabab), Moez Hassen (Chateauroux)
Defenders: Rami Bedoui (ES Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa), Dylan Bronn (Gent), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon) , Ali Maaloul (Al-Ahly), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek)
Midfielders: Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al-Ahli SC), Sai-Eddine Khaoui (Troyes), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier), Ferjani Sassi (Al-Nasr), Ghaylene Chaalali (ES Tunis)
Attackers: Anice Badri (ES Tunis), Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al-Ittifaq), Naim Sliti (Dijon), Bassem Srarfi (Nice), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain)
Wahbi Khazri. The Sunderland man spent this past season at Rennes on loan, scoring nine goals in 17 matches. He’s a talented attacking midfielder who’ll be tasked with creating most of the chances in the final third.
Players to watch
Saber Khalifa. The 31-year-old striker never really settled in while playing in Europe and doesn’t have an international goal since September 2016. How confident will he be at the cup? He’ll likely start or big an important player off the bench, and he’ll have to be sharp on Khazri’s passes to help this team if it hopes to make some noise.
Influential starters Ghaylene Chaalali, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ali Maaloul have also dealt with injuries in recent months despite making the final 23-man squad, and it is far from clear whether Tunisia will be physically capable of reproducing the performance level that got them to the tournament in an unforgiving group.
No team has a more brutal start than Tunisia and Panama. Facing England and Belgium in the first two matches means they have to probably get two points or maybe three from those two games. The problem is, the talent and quality doesn’t seem to be there to get much from those games. They’ll have to be near perfect and anything is possible, but it’s no doubt that England and Belgium are the heavy favorites to cruise on into the round of 16. Expect three matches and back home for Tunisia.