Back-to-basics method gets Tunisia firing again
Tunisia will play in Group B with Cape Verde, Zambia and DR Congo
With 2014 marking a decade since Tunisia last lifted the Africa Cup of Nations trophy, the locals no doubt look back to that 2-1 victory over Morocco in Rades with great fondness, as the conditions conspired to allow them an unexpected but glorious victory in front of their home crowd. Eleven years on, as they look south towards Equatorial Guinea, there is a feeling of quiet optimism amongst the North Africans; a feeling that they may be able to sneak down a side alley and surprise everyone.
Whilst the home advantage that Tunisia held in 2004 makes the comparisons between now and then difficult to parallel, their recent form, style of play and a fairly pleasant draw means it is not outrageous for Tunisians to fancy their chances in this edition of the African Cup of Nations. A strong run in the competition would be a positive way of rounding off what has been an undulating couple of years for the Tunisian national team.
A consistent fixture in the knockout stages of Africa's premier competition since that night in Rades, Tunisia's failure to get out of the group in 2013 – finishing third behind Togo on goal difference – was the start of the malaise. Going through four managers in a single year, Sami Trabelsi's resignation after South Africa kick-started the process, as fellow Tunisian and ex-Espereance coach Nabil Maaloul was installed to fill the void, with the task of qualifying for the World Cup at hand. Having made a 100% start under Trabelsi, with two wins from two, the minimum expectation was for Tunisia to finish top and qualify for the resulting playoff match, which would decide who went to Brazil. They did manage this – but only with a bit of help from the administrative team at the Cape Verdian FA.
A draw against Sierra Leone and then against Equatorial Guinea saw the Carthage Eagles make a real hash of their final games, and when they went and lost 2-0 to Cape Verde in the final game, it all appeared to be over. Maaloul resigned right after the match, only for FIFA to rule that Blue Sharks defender Fernado Varela had not completed a suspension, giving Tunisia a bye into the playoff against Cameroon.
On the lookout for a manager again, CS Sfaxien manager Ruud Krol was put in charge for the two legs, simultaneously managing the domestic side and the national team. A 0-0 draw and then a 4-1 loss against Cameroon meant Krol ended his temporary spell, returning to Sfax, as the recruitment team at the Tunisian FA continued their busy year.
A safe bet was needed; someone who would take this team back to the beginning and reintroduce the core principles of football, which appeared to have been dizzied out of the team during the managerial merry-go-round. That man was Georges Leekens.
A couple of spells as Belgium manager and a spell as Algeria manager in 2003, the 62-year-old has created a well-disciplined, difficult to beat and unfussy team, with the simple aim of winning games. Generally preferring a 5-3-2 formation, the marauding full-backs of Hamza Mathlouthi and Ali Maaloul link up with their superb array of talent in attacking midfield to hit teams on the counter, with the 6 goals scored in qualifying a testament to their ability to grind out results. Accumulating 14 points in this time however, goals may be at a premium, but they certainly count for something.
Indeed, the midfield is what gets Tunisian fans rubbing their hands together. With the Hocine Ragued and the majestic Ferjani Sassi sitting in front of the defence, they give free reign to team captain Yaccine Chikhaoui, Wahbi Khazri and Youssef Mskani further up the pitch, combining to impressive effect – all capable of taking the game by the scruff of its neck.
Whilst this disciplined ruthlessness is an intriguing prospect, there are mediating factors of this tournament that should be considered before anyone gets too excited. Put in Group B with Cape Verde, Zambia and DR Congo, this may not be the most challenging of groups, but the general evenness of their opposition makes foreboding the opposition that they can beat somewhat of a challenge. Cape Verde are a team they've struggled with recently, Zambia play a very similar low-scoring brand of football to Tunisia and DR Congo are highly unpredictable, but should they overcome these obstacles, knockout football will most certainly suit the style of Tunisia.
Based in the north-east town of Ebybiyin and lacking any big name nations to get people talking about the group, this could add to the elusive advantage of any trophy challenge that Tunisia make in Equatorial Guinea. Advance from the group, and they likely face Burkina Faso or Gabon – two teams you could conceivably beat on their day. If everything goes right, you could see the Carthage Eagles surprise a few people.