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Tunisia remodelling continues on road to Russia

For a team supposedly billed as the weakest of Africa's World Cup quintet, and arguably as the side with the trickiest route to the Last 16, Tunisia certainly appear to be growing strong as the tournament approaches.

Certainly, the remodelled North Africans will be boosted after their come-from-behind 2-2 draw against Portugal in Braga on Monday.

The Carthage Eagles' build-up has, in general, been far from ideal, with coach Nabil Maaloul losing two key attacking talents - Youssef Msakni and Taha Yassine Khenissi - to injury ahead of the competition and has had to adapt accordingly.

If the former's absence denied Tunisia an inspirational forward capable of making decisive contributions and winning matches almost single-handedly, the loss of Khenissi has deprived them of a reference point and a figurehead of the attack.

An argument could be made that, while he is the lesser of the two players, his absence leaves a hole that's arguably harder to fill.

Yet Maaloul has been going about finding a solution admirably, and is demonstrating a willingness to reconfigure his squad and modify his tactical approach in order to ensure that Tunisia still have a cutting edge when they take on England in their World Cup opener on June 18.

Part of his strategy, unrelated to the injuries, has been to use the tournament as bait to lure various dual-nationality players to commit their futures to Tunisia.

This could have had the effect of undermining the morale in the squad and undercutting the Carthage Eagles' identity, but instead, the new faces have largely stepped in seamlessly even if it remains to be seen which - if any - will be starters in Russia.

Ellyes Skhiri of Montpellier has started the last three matches, and is a contender to profit from recent injuries to Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghailene Chaalali, both of whom are still on the comeback trail.

The 23-year-old struggled in moments against Portugal on Monday, where he appeared - at times - uncomfortable in possession and appeared withdrawn when attempting to hunt the ball down.

He doesn't offer the ballast or balance of Ben Amor, while Chaalali's introduction as a second-half substitute helped to give the side more poise, dynamism and bite.

Tunisia fans will be hoping the latter, a fine box-to-box midfielder who's dangerous from range, can make his way back to full match fitness in time for the England game.

Intriguingly, perhaps the player most vulnerable by Skhiri's emergence is Ferjani Sassi, the only one of the first-choice midfield trio not to be injured in the build-up to the tournament.

A fine playmaker Sassi might be, but against elite opponents - like England or Belgium - he risks being exposed.

Mouez Hassen, Yohan Benalouane, Oussama Haddadi and Saif-Eddine Khaoui all also started against Portugal, while Bassen Srarfi was introduced from the bench.

The quintet look likely to begin the World Cup as substitutes, with Benalouane doing little against the European champions to suggest that his experience of playing in the Premier League gives him the edge over either Rami Bedoui or Yassine Meriah.

Gent's Dylan Bronn, meanwhile, didn't feature against Portugal, but may be quietly confident of replacing his right-back rival Hamdi Nagguez after the latter's underwhelming display on Monday.

Further forward, Maaloul has turned to some of the existing names in the squad - and some familiar faces - in order to try to compensate for the absences of Msakni and Khenissi.

Wahbi Khazri, who didn't play against Portugal, has been utilised in more of an offensive role recently, and will start in a front three.

On the left, Naim Sliti's stock continues to rise, and while he's still capable of unnecessary flourishes and losing the ball, he's excellent when taking on opponents and attempting to beat his man.

Certainly, the Dijon loanee - who could move onto bigger and better things in the coming months - has the quality to trouble Kieran Tripper and Thomas Meunier.

If Khazri will need to step up to replace Msakni's output in the final third, Sliti will replace the fantasy footwork with which the injured talisman so flummoxed Africa's defences during qualification.

To replace Khenissi leading the line, Maaloul has several options, and it will be intriguing to see which emerges as his Plan A between now and the England game.

Ahmed Akaichi and Saber Khalifa have both been recalled and featured against Portugal after not being present for the last nine and seven matches respectively.

The former offered little off the ball and struggled to get involved, although he'll almost certainly travel, while Akaichi is an opportunistic forward who may lack the refinement to trouble the Red Devils and the Three Lions.

Fakhreddine Ben Youssef is ungainly to the point of clumsiness, but often delivers in big games - as he demonstrated with the equaliser against Portugal - and he enjoys using his awkward presence to ruffle defenders.

You could certainly see Ben Youssef relishing a tussle with John Stones or Kyle Walker in England's opener, although he may be limited to a role off the bench.

Instead, the emerging Anice Badri could be Maaloul's ace in the hole come Russia. The ES Tunis attacker is a versatile and multi-faceted talent, who operated both on the right and through the middle at times against Portugal.

The 27-year-old, who opened Tunisia's scoring against Portugal, could operate as a false nine between Sliti and Khazri, or move to the right to allow the latter to feature through the centre.

It will be intriguing to see how Maaloul opts to use Badri in Friday's friendly against Turkey as he continues to remodel his starting XI in the face of such injury-enforced absences, but the forward's form has helped Tunisia overcome the loss of their two key frontmen.

It may be an unfamiliar Eagles of Carthage attack that takes to the field against England in Krasnodar, but they certainly have enough in their armoury to trouble the Three Lions.

Ed Dove is the Soccer Editor for KweséESPN. Follow him on Twitter @EddyDove.


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