World Cup Group G: Tunisia represents first opportunity for Southgate, England to prove it's a new era
With the tournament now well underway, we look forward towards England and Tunisia's introductory match in Group G. The game will be taking place at the Volgograd Arena. This stadia was built purposely for the tournament, holding a 44,000 capacity. The fixture will be the first of four matches head at the venue.
Although not heavily fancied this year, England are expected to reach the knockout stages as per usual. It would be acceptable to see them progress through to the quarter-final stage and anything further would be a bonus. But many fans aren't expecting anything spectacular. The Three Lions' performances in recent major competition has been nothing short of awful. Picking up only one point during the group stage in the 2014 World Cup was an embarrassment, two years later, they were dumped out of the European Championships by Iceland.
Tunisia will just be happy to make it to the World Cup in Russia; this is their fifth appearance at the biggest event in football. A win against Gareth Southgate's men would be considered a major shock. As the old saying goes, though, anything can happen...
The sides have only met twice, although their last meeting was twenty years ago. They first locked horns in 1990, for a friendly. The game finished 1-1. Abdelhamed Hergal scored for Tunisia while Steve Bull scored England's first ever goal against the African nation. The most recent meeting was back in 1998 during the French World Cup. They opened their campaigns with their meeting in Group G; just like they will in Russia. The game in 98' ended with a 2-0 win to England, the goals coming from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes.
FIFA Ranking: 21st
Tunisia's head coach Nabil Maaloul has been in charge of his home nation since April last year. He's guided the African side to their first World Cup since 2006; a major achievement. In his ten games as boss, he's yielded an impressive 50% win ratio.
Maaloul's men qualified from Group A during the CAF process, earning four wins and two draws from their six games. They finished above DR Congo, Libya and Guinea. They are one of five African nations representing their confederation along with Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria and Morocco. Their top scorer was Youssef Msakni who netted three times. Unfortunately, he will miss this World Cup due to a knee injury.
The Eagles of Carthage possess some notable faces. Vice-captain Wahbi Khazri of Rennes will be recognised by Sunderland fans. Yohan Benalouane of Leicester City also makes the squad. The centre-back has only made four appearances at international level, but hopes to appear against England. The most experienced player is their goalkeeper and captain Aymen Mathlouti. The 33-year-old has been capped 70 times. Their current top scorer is Khazri with 12 goals so far. Most of the squad predominantly play in either Saudi Arabia or their homeland.
It is unknown what formation Maaloul will showcase against England as they've deployed various tactics in the build-up to the World Cup. Against Portugal, they played a 4-4-2. A 4-3-3 was used against Turkey while they opted for a 4-5-1 in their 1-0 loss against Spain.
Tunisia were crowned Africa Cup of Nations champions back in 2004. They were also African Nations Championship winners in 2011. They've certainly enjoyed recent success within their continent. Now, they'll be looking to make a name for themselves on the global stage.
FIFA Ranking: 12th
England are heading into this World Cup with a cautious attitude. They are aware of the previous major tournament antics. Obviously, they don't want history to repeat itself. With that said, their first two fixtures certainly look winnable. Now, it's up to Gareth Southgate to ensure the players perform to their capabilities and get their tournament off to the best possible start. The Three Lions come into the tournament with their third-youngest ever World Cup squad. With some solid performances against Nigeria and Costa Rica in the build-up, they'll be brimming with confidence.
England topped their European qualification group with eight wins from 10 games; remaining unbeaten in the process. Although the group was regarded as somewhat easy, toppling Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta, you can only beat what's put in front of you. Obviously, tougher tests are to come.
Southgate has deployed a 3-1-4-2 formation in his three previous fixtures. The three centre-back system allows England's wing-backs to bomb forward and affect the game in the final third. Kyle Walker, John Stones and Gary Cahill are most likely going to play as the back three while it's possible Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier could appear as Southgate's first-choice full-backs. They will likely have #1 Jordan Pickford in-behind them. He's become a reliable shot-stopper for both club and country, and his excellent ability with the ball at his feet is a huge bonus.
The central midfield spots are up for debate, but the attacking line pretty much picks itself. England's main man, and captain, Harry Kane will lead the line. Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli should all start, too.
Unfortunately, starlet Marcus Rashford is a slight doubt with a knee injury and will most likely remain as a substitute for this one.
England come into this game as somewhat of an unknown quantity. This is a young side that has the potential, but who knows how they're going to perform under the bright lights. With that said, Southgate possesses too much attacking ability, and his side should win this match fairly comfortably. With no so-called 'big side' sending out a message at this World Cup so far, this is the Three Lions' opportunity. I believe they'll win this match comfortably, I'll go for 4-0.
Obviously, the onus is going to be on Kane. He scored 30 goals for Spurs last season, he's also netted 13 times for his country. If he gets off to a good start with a goal or two in this one, who knows how far England can go...