Time for Tunisia to prove they are top 15 material

Players of the Tunisian national football team celebrate with their national flag after qualifying for the World Cup last November.
Updated 16 April 2018
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Time for Tunisia to prove they are top 15 material

  • Tunisia up to No. 14 in latest FIFA world rankings
  • Face tough task getting out of World Cup group in Russia

Last week FIFA released their latest world rankings and Tunisia, after a leap of nine places, now find themselves at No. 14, their highest ever, and indeed higher than any African or Arab team currently.
At No.13 sit England, the team they face in their opening match at the this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Tunisia could now well be on the cusp of a new golden era, 12 years after their last participation at football’s biggest stage. 
The improvement has been dramatic. Tunisian Nabil Maaloul took over in April last year after the sacking of Polish coach Henryk Kasperczak and went about uniting a fractured squad before leading his country to Russia 2018.
This will be Tunisia’s fifth time at the World Cup, a record for an Arab nation that they will be sharing with Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
And like neighbors Morocco and Algeria, they have considerable World Cup pedigree as well. 
In 1978, Abdelmajid Chetali’s superb team went into the World Cup in Argentina having finished third at the African Cup of Nations earlier that year.
In their first match in Rosario, they beat Mexico 3-1 in a devastating display of counter-attacking football that their opponents, it was clear, were wholly unprepared for. It was the first ever victory by an African or Arab team at a World Cup.
And they had a new superstar in Tarak Dhiab, whose outstanding performances saw Tunisia unexpectedly draw with reigning champions West Germany before a narrow, heartbreaking defeat to a strong Poland team meant they exited the competition in the group stages. Still, theirs was a pioneering campaign, proving for the first time that African and Arab teams could compete at that level. Four years later, Algeria would follow in their footsteps with a famous 2-1 win over West Germany before the disgrace of Gijon — when West Germany and Austria seemingly conspired to eliminate the north Africans with a 1-0 scoreline — put an end to their dreams.
Subsequent Tunisian qualifications, however, have not reached those heights. In 1998 in France, Tunisia lost 2-0 to England and 1-0 to Colombia before drawing 1-1 with Romania.
Four years later, under the Tunisian Ammar Souayah, they mirrored their results in France, losing twice to Russia and Japan by 2-0, and drawing 1-1 with Belgium.
Under Roger Lemerre, Tunisia experienced a renaissance, winning the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations at home. His team then qualified for the World Cup for the third consecutive time, matching the previous record held by Saudi Arabia, who themselves reached their fourth tournament in a row.
In Germany, yet again, Tunisia managed only one point; losing 3-1 to Spain, 1-0 to the Ukraine, and drawing 2-2 with Saudi Arabia thanks to an injury time equalizer by Radhi Jaidi.
After the heroics of Argentina, it is fair to say Tunisia’s World Cup performances have been a major disappointment. In Russia, it is those heroes of 1978 that Tunisia will be looking to emulate, and Maaloul will already be plotting an escape route from what was always going to be a difficult group.
Belgium and England, regardless of their proximity in world ranking to Tunisia, are firm favorites to qualify to the knockout stages.
Tunisia kick off their World Cup campaign, as they did in 1998, against England, in Volgograd on June 18. Six days later they will face an even tougher task against in Belgium in Moscow.
While Tunisia cannot be discounted in either of those matches, it is perhaps a shame that they play Panama, a team they have a better chance of beating, in their last group fixture, by which point they could already be out of contention. 
It is then vital that the Arab nation gets something out of their two earlier matches, and they will then have the added bonus of knowing how many goals may be required for progress into the last 16.
Tunisia suffered a major blow when a knee injury to Al-Duhail’s Youssef Msakni has almost certainly ruled him out of the World Cup.
However, with likes of Wahbi Khazri of Rennes, Taha Khenissi of Esperance, Mohamed Ben Amor of  Al-Ahli, and a raft of players from across Europe and Tunisia, Maaloul will still feel confident his team can make a real impression in Russia, 40 years after their finest World Cup hour.
Whether they can surpass the Class of ‘78 remains to be seen.


Liverpool's Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test

Updated 23 April 2018
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Liverpool's Andrew Robertson ready for Roma Champions League test

  • Young Scottish star was very impressive during Liverpool's 5-1 aggregate destruction of Man City in last-eight clash.
  • Robertson refuses to take Roma lightly after their shock victory over Barcelona in the last round.

LIVERPOOL: With a desire stoked in the stands of Parkhead, Andrew Robertson is now fired up to fulfil a childhood dream.
While following the fortunes of Celtic, the defender’s first Champions League final memory was when Zinedine Zidane volleyed Real Madrid to success in 2002 as the contest was staged in Robertson’s home city of Glasgow. He was just eight years old.
While Robertson was deemed too small to play for his boyhood idols, released at 15 with a future uncertain, he has grown to prove his worth on Europe’s biggest club stage with Liverpool.
Now, with a semifinal encounter against AS Roma after beating Premier League champions Manchester City in the last eight, he wants to emulate those Reds heroes who lifted the trophy five times before.
“I was a big Celtic fan growing up and my heroes were Henrik Larsson and Co,” Robertson told Arab News ahead of tonight’s first-leg clash 
at Anfield.
“But these heroes who have won the European Cup and Champions League for Liverpool, you have to look up to them — and we want to emulate them and hopefully get a winner’s medal too.
“The club’s won it five times and the history of the club has always been this, the Champions League, where the fans create a special atmosphere and the club challenges for the trophy. It would be unbelievable to be a part of that history.
“This is the highlight for me so far and an incredible feeling, but it just makes you hungry for more. I don’t want it to end.
“As a kid, you sit back and watch how great it would be to play in this competition, let alone in the final.
“I always used to go to Celtic and we didn’t progress very far in the Champions League, but the occasions at Parkhead were always unbelievable.
“The fans at Celtic are incredible, world renowned, but Anfield was unbelievable against Man City and we have another chance for them to create that same atmosphere and hopefully we can put in another great performance.”
Having beaten Pep Guardiola’s City so convincingly, 5-1 over two gripping games, Liverpool will start favorites against Roma.
That is despite the Italians upsetting Barcelona in the previous round with an epic 3-0 win in the second leg after a 4-1 loss at the Nou Camp.
But Robertson will take nothing for granted against a Roma side who last reached the final in 1984 where they were beaten by Liverpool in a penalty shootout at their Stadio Olimpico home.
“Barca are an unbelievable team,” added the Scotland left-back, 24. “But let’s not kid ourselves. For Roma to score three goals against Barcelona, that’s special.
“They’ve been unbelievable this season too in the Champions League and deserve to be in the semifinals. It will definitely not be an easy game.
“But once you get to the semis, the fear of who you are playing has gone because you know how good the teams are.
“It’s like you look forward to the possibility of playing in the final, that’s what drives you forward. We will have fire in our bellies because we are so close to getting there.”
Jurgen Klopp’s men will no doubt be looking to Mohamed Salah to conjure more magic against the club he left in the summer for £36.9 million ($51.5 million).
But Robertson insisted Liverpool are no one-man team and the Egyptian, crowned PFA Player of the Year on Sunday night after scoring 41 goals in an unforgettable campaign, epitomizes a team united and ambitious in their quest for glory.
“He’s just unbelievable,” said Robertson of the frontman.
“In the first half (of the second leg) against Man City we struggled to get him in the game and he wasn’t quite at it. But the second half he was different class and pops up with a goal to help us win it. That’s what he does.
“His goals have been incredible and long may that continue. He’s a great guy, so humble, and for someone who has done so much this season he’s so down to Earth.
“That’s credit to our squad because we don’t let anyone get ahead of themselves.
“Mo is no different, he’s a lovely person and stands for what we are as a team.”

 

HEART OF GOLD

Five years ago Andrew Robertson was playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football with Queen’s Park and earning extra money by selling concert tickets in the corporate offices at Hampden Park.
Last summer he suffered relegation from the Premier League with Hull City before Liverpool signed him for £10 million ($13.9 million).
In a career fraught with setbacks and hardships, he has been grateful, supporting foodbanks that help those in need.
“It’s all about giving something back to the less fortunate,” said Robertson.
“I’m in a fortunate position where I do a job I love and get paid well and it’s nice to give something back, especially in my hometown. I’ll always do that.
“It’s been a great journey for me in my career, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. But I don’t forget where I came from. Maybe it is rare, but a lot more people are doing it now and I hope even more will.”