Tunisia: Northern Pride
Following their convincing showing in qualification, Tunisia will be heading to the Cup of Nations as serious contenders.
The Eagles of Carthage only conceded two goals in six matches in Group G and managed to keep clean sheets in both contests against Senegal and their ferocious stable of strikers.
Such consistency is underpinned by a steadiness in selection.
While Georges Leekens trialled a few tactical approaches during qualification, he largely stuck with the same key group of players.
Eight of his squad featured in five of their six (unbeaten) qualifiers, and there’s unlikely to be too much deviation at the Cup of Nations itself.
In goal, Aymen Mathlouthi looks well-placed to establish himself as one of the continent’s finest goalkeepers in 2015. He is a veteran of four previous Afcon squads but, now 30, is in his prime and will be looking to prove it in Equatorial Guinea.
Ahead of him Ali Maaloul, Syam Ben Youssef, Aymen Abdennour and Hamza Mathlouthi (from left to right) make for an excellent defensive unit. The full-backs are youthful and lively, while the centre-backs have enough nous to see the North Africans out of the group stage.
Alaeddine Yahia of Caen will not be present, having ruled himself out of contention, but Mohamed Ali Yaakoubi of Esperance is an able deputy and facilitates a five-man defence should Leekens see fit.
Bilel Mohsni and Rami Bedoui provide further defensive cover, while Yassin Mikari of Club Africain can come in for Maaloul at left-back.
Mikari signed for the domestic giants in the summer alongside Stephane Houcine Nater, who is a defensive option in midfield. He and the vocal Hocine Ragued of Esperance can perform defensive duties ahead of the backline, with the latter also able to drop between the centre-backs.
Youngster Ferjani Sassi can replace either man (likely Nater) in the middle of the park and is a particularly cultured operator. He is not a destroyer, but rather a subtle, inventive deep-lying player. To assert themselves in Group B, I expect Leekens will opt to drop one of his holders and allow Sassi to dictate the play. He is ready to be the side’s heartbeat.
Ahead of the two central midfielders, captain Yassine Chikhaoui will have the main creative duties from behind the striker. The 28-year-old is in his prime and was recently voted the best midfielder in Switzerland. There is something of the Zidane about his elegance, his upright posture and his swirling playmaking.
Wahbi Khazri, of Bordeaux, will take one of the wide roles, with Youssef Msakni likely filling-in on the other. Saber Khalifa, formerly of Marseille, is a very credible, hard-working option for any of the attacking roles.
Fakherredine Ben Youssef, seemingly destined for a big tournament performance, will likely lead the line, although he could feasibly move over to the right-side, allowing the more creative Younes Hamza to take the top spot.
There will be no lack of dribbling and fine movement, but Ben Youssef’s 6ft 4in frame is particularly useful at disrupting opposition defences and opening the door for those in support. Msakni, in particular, ought to be profiting more from the multi-storey hitman.
Sami Allagui of Mainz and Amine Chermiti of FC Zurich are further offensive options, although they were bit-part players during qualification.