PROFILE: Why Tunisia face an uphill battle at the 2018 World Cup

Tunisia's national football team players disembark from a plane upon their arrival at Moscow Vnukovo airport on June 11, 2018, ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament.
Tunisia's national football team players disembark from a plane upon their arrival at Moscow Vnukovo airport on June 11, 2018, ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup football tournament.

Tunisia enter the 2018 World Cup in Russia without the star quality of the other African contingent‚ but as the top-ranked side on the continent after a good run of success in the last 12 months.

Coach Nabil Maâloul faces a daunting pool stage and must do without key players through injury as the North Africans face an uphill battle to reach the second round for the first time in their history.

Tunisia will be appearing in their fifth finals after debuting in Argentina in 1978‚ before successive qualifications for 1998‚ 2002 and 2006.

Their only victory in 12 matches came 40 years ago when they stunned Mexico 3-1 and then held a powerful West Germany 0-0‚ but still failed to make the knockout stages after a 1-0 loss to Poland.

Since then they have drawn one and lost two of their pool matches in the last three finals where they have appeared‚ and looking at their group for 2018‚ it could be a similar result again.

Tunisia meet a young but exciting England in their pool opener on Monday‚ before another difficult fixture against Belgium on June 23.

They close their group campaign against Panama on June 28.

Certainly‚ the English and the Belgians will be heavy favourites to advance to the knockout stages‚ with Panama the weakest team in the pool.

Tunisia have shown good form in the build-up to Russia‚ despite their narrow 1-0 loss to Spain last time out.

This year they have beaten World Cup-bound Costa Rica and Carlos Queiroz’s Iran‚ both by 1-0 scorelines‚ before coming from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Portugal.

They were also minutes away from a good win against Turkey‚ but again had to settle again for a 2-2 draw.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was certainly impressed with how the Tunisians played against his native Spain last week.

“For me‚ they deserved to win the game.

"It was just a confirmation that Tunisia could be one of the surprises in the World Cup‚” Martinez told reporters‚ adding they were “technically extremely strong”.

But coach Maâloul does have his problems.

Star man Wahbi Khazri has been included in their squad for the finals‚ but has not played any of their warm-up fixtures as he battles a thigh injury and remains a doubt.

They must definitely do without winger Youssef Msakni‚ who recently underwent knee surgery‚ and striker Taha Yassine Khenissi.

Better news is the return to fitness of midfielder Mohamed Amine Ben Amor‚ who had injured his knee on national team duty in March and was considered a major doubt.

Leicester City centre-back Yohan Benalouane believes that despite the tough draw and the injury worries‚ the side can advance to the second round for the first time.

"The first objective is to get through the first round as it would be amazing for our country.

"To have a good World Cup with all my team-mates will be a good thing‚" he said.

"For me‚ it was a big emotion [to play for Tunisia]‚ because to go on the pitch with the shirt of your country‚ it's always something special.

"I hope we can do something good for the World Cup."

Playing for Leicester will give Benalouane an advantage in that he knows England very well‚ including his clubmates Harry Maguire and Jamie Vardy.

"Obviously‚ it will be a good game and it's always a pleasure to meet other people from my team in the World Cup.

"It will be a big challenge for us‚" he said of Monday’s opener.

"Vards (Vardy) is always difficult‚ because he is an electric man. He is a very good striker‚ he has top quality‚ he scores a lot.

"We have to be focused‚ because we know his quality. I hope‚ for him‚ that he has a good World Cup‚ but not against Tunisia."