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What positives can be taken from Tunisia's World Cup campaign?

Tunisia's brief World Cup campaign at least ended on a high note on Thursday when they came from behind to beat Panama 2-1 in Saransk to win their first game in the competition since 1978.

It was a rare reason to celebrate in a troubled tournament for the Carthage Eagles, who were Africa's highest placed side in the FIFA World Rankings heading to Russia.

Admittedly, their hopes of reaching the Last 16 were over after two matches, while they were exposed brutally in their 5-2 mauling by Belgium, but are there any positives to take from their three-game World Cup sojourn?

First of all, the context of Tunisia's campaign cannot be ignored. Injuries affected this team both ahead of and during the tournament, and it's hard to overstate just how much fitness concerns shaped the Eagles' campaign.

The North Africans lost both talismanic playmaker Youssef Msakni and key forward Yassine Taha Khenissi ahead of the campaign, severely muting their strikeforce and prompting an offensive reshuffle.

Absences meant opportunities, of course, but while Anice Badri - the key beneficiary of the injuries - impressed ahead of the competition, he struggled in Russia.

The likes of Ghaaylen Chaalali and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor recovered from fitness problems to make the squad, but neither were given key roles - perhaps due to their lack of match sharpness - while Tunisia lost Mouez Hassen, Dylan Bronn and Syam Ben Youssef among others to injury during the tournament.

Indeed, Tunisia are the only side in the tournament to have used all 23 squad players - including all three goalkeepers - after coach Nabil Maaloul was forced into constant reshuffles.

Secondly, the draw worked against the Eagles, and they would have had to have overachieved to have remained in the running for the Last 16 heading into their final match against Panama, let alone progress.

No other side in the whole of the competition had opening fixtures as ominous as England and Belgium, and while Maaloul's side were thumped by the latter, they largely held their own against the Three Lions and were only defeated at the death.

Had they held on just a few minutes longer against England, then the complexion on Tunisia's campaign might have been very different.

The team can take encouragement both from the way they held Gareth Southgate's side at bay for so long - even if it was partly in spite of themselves - while they also troubled Belgium at the back, making more of an impression on the Red Devils' defence than England's B team did on Thursday.

In terms of individual performances, there is also cause for optimism.

Wahbi Khazri, in particular, has been one of the stand-out players of the group stage - and not just from an African perspective.

The Sunderland man, despite being shoe-horned into a striking role that he only really began adapting to last season on loan at Stade Rennais, ends the group stage with four decisive contributions (two goals and two assists).

Putting that feat into context, only Harry Kane - with five - has more.

Khazri's inventiveness, finishing ability and set-piece delivery all caught the eye, and have put him firmly in the shop window ahead of an inevitable move to one of Europe's major leagues before the transfer window closes.

Elsewhere, Oussama Haddadi's showing against Panama - albeit a limited side - suggests that he's a viable alternative to Ali Maaloul, who endured a miserable tournament. Still only 28, it's too early to rule the Al-Ahly man out just yet, but it will be intriguing to see who starts at the 2019 African Nations Cup.

Of the new faces in the squad, Bronn and Hassen both stepped up before injury struck, the former in particular catching the eye, and both have the quality to be key figures in the side for another decade to come.

Then there's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. His limitations may be clear, but he demonstrated again how his bullish approach and relentless work rate can cause problems for defences.

He didn't impress during his brief stint in Europe with Metz, but might clubs be willing to take another punt on the towering, versatile forward after he proved again just what a handful he can be.

Not all of coach Maaloul's new additions to the squad showed that they can enjoy long-term futures with the national side, but his recruitment drive ahead of the tournament - for better or worse - has at least bolstered the talent pool available moving forward.

Ultimately, time may not remember Tunisia's World Cup campaign as the shambles it's felt like at times, with the North Africans ending their 40-year wait for a win in the tournament, and finishing third in their group with three points.

Naturally, there's disappointment, and questions to be asked about some of the decisions made, but when the dust settles, there are certainly some positives the Eagles can take as they look ahead to Cameroon 2019.

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

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