FIFA World Cup 2018: England eye a sterling start against Tunisia

With Tunisia and Panama in the group, Gareth Southgate’s team could seal pre-quarter finals berth before playing Belgium

football Updated: Jun 17, 2018 23:14 IST
Bhargab Sarmah
Bhargab Sarmah
Hindustan Times, Moscow
FIFA World Cup 2018,World Cup 2018,World Cup Russia
England's Harry Kane and manager Gareth Southgate during the press conference before their opening match at FIFA World Cup 2018.(REUTERS)

It is a tradition that hasn’t been going well for England over the past 52 years bar once. They head into the World Cup with high expectations and go home without much to show for.

The only time England came close to regaining the title was in 1990 when they suffered a heart-break in penalties to Germany in the semi-finals. Since then, they are yet to reach the last-four.

This time though the build-up has been different. Gareth Southgate, an underwhelming appointment in 2016, has not shied away from taking some big decisions since taking over.

Senior members such as Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere were axed and Wayne Rooney, whose starting position started to become less certain under Southgate, quit in 2017.

In Russia, England have the opportunity of booking their round-of-16 ticket before they meet Belgium as they face fairly negotiable fixtures against Tunisia and Panama.

With Harry Kane leading the line and Raheem Sterling having come to the World Cup on the back of the best season of his career, England will want their World Cup adventure to start with full points against Tunisia.

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Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson are expected to start behind Dele Alli in central midfield while Southgate’s choice in a three-man defence is less predictable. With Kyle Walker likely to be part of the last line of defence, Trent Alexander-Arnold could start as the right wing-back and Danny Rose his opposite number.

Tunisians arrive in droves

“Khazri’s on fire, your defence is terrified,” was heard across Moscow’s Tverskaya area on Saturday evening as Tunisia fans thronged some of its most popular pubs. The chant, dedicated to forward Wahbi Khazri, is a Tunisian adaptation of the popular song on Wigan Athletic and Northern Ireland forward Will Grigg that went viral during the 2016 European Championship.

With the game against England scheduled for a 9pm kick-off in Volgograd on Monday, hundreds of Tunisian fans had landed in Moscow by Saturday and were making their way to the city.

This is Tunisia’s fifth World Cup and the enthusiasm among the fans is unmistakable. Compared to England, whose fans have been barely visible so far – perhaps due to the hysteria over possible attack from ‘hooligans’ – many Tunisian flags were visible across Moscow on Saturday.

With Youssef Msakni, the team’s creative engine, out due to injury, the onus is on Saif-Eddine Khaoui to step up. Rennes forward Khazri has regained form in France after a disappointing spell at Sunderland and will be hoping to be noticed by some prominent European club as he seeks a permanent move away from England.

ALSO READ | FIFA World Cup 2018: Belgium expecting tough test against debutants Panama

Tunisia haven’t won a World Cup game since 1978 but this time there is hope riding on the team despite the absence of any big name.

Nabil Maaloul’s team has lost just one game this year – 0-1 to Spain following a late goal. Wins against Iran and Costa Rica were followed by draws against Portugal and Turkey prior to that defeat.

Aymen Mathlouthi is a calming influence in goal while Europe-based players Syam Ben Youssef and Yohan Benalouane are likely to feature in the backline.

Saudi Arabia-based Ferjani Sassi and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor are likely to be mainstays in midfield for the Tunisian side.

England have often started slowly at the World Cup and against a talented Tunisian team, any laxity could be punished severely by the 2004 African champions.

First Published: Jun 17, 2018 22:08 IST