The final match of the opening round of group fixtures at the FIFA World Cup takes place this afternoon in Munich’s impressive Allianz Arena.
Group H underdogs Tunisia and Saudi Arabia will be looking to increase the pressure on favourites Spain and Ukraine, who meet in the other group game earlier in the day.
Both teams are among the least celebrated at the World Cup Finals, and enter this afternoon’s match on the back of a string of poor results at the finals. Tunisia became the first African team to win a World Cup Finals match in 1978, but have failed to register a win in eight attempts since – the second longest winless streak in finals history. Saudi Arabia’s record is hardly much better. They have gone seven games without a victory and have lost all three of their opening World Cup matches, so this evening something will have to give.
Tunisia will start the game as clear favourites and are appearing in their third consecutive tournament. They are the only African nation at the 2006 finals with previous tournament experience, and their hopes of progressing to the knockout stage have been boosted by the appointment of former France coach Roger Lemerre.
Lemerre is vastly experienced, and his CV boasts a win at Euro 2000 with France and a victory for Tunisia when they hosted the 2004 African Nations Cup. The one black mark on his profile was France’s performance at the last World Cup, when under his stewardship Les Bleus failed to register a goal or a win. He will therefore be looking to this afternoon’s match to provide him with a first taste of success at the World Cup Finals.
Tunisia enter their third consecutive World Cup aided by a controversial selection policy that has been fully exploited by the coach. Drawing inspiration from Jack Charlton’s selection of non-Irish players for the Irish national team during the late 1980s and early 1990s , the Tunisian FA has looked beyond Tunisian-born players in an effort to bolster their squad. The most high profile of these are the prolific Brazilian-born striker Francileudo dos Santos and the experienced defender David Jemmali, who finally chose to represent the country of his father’s birth having been courted unsuccessfully by Tunisia for many years.
Lemerre will employ a similar system to that of his French side, a rigid-looking 4-4-2. Tunisia’s two most high-profile players line up in defence, which is the strongest area of the team. In Hatem Trabelsi, Lemerre can call upon a right-back of genuine class and experience. The 29 year-old has spent many successful seasons at Dutch giants Ajax, and is likely to be a target for a host of top European clubs after the World Cup when his contract in Amsterdam expires.
Bolton Wanderers’ vastly experienced, powerful centre-half Radhi Jaidi will also be a crucial cog in Lemerre’s defence. Having spent many years at Tunisia’s biggest club, Esperance, Jaidi left the relative safety of the Tunisian league in the summer of 2004 to test himself in the English Premiership. His form over the last two seasons has made him one of Bolton boss Sam Allardyce’s most effective recent signings. Jaidi, Trabelsi and their defensive colleagues will be protecting the tournament’s oldest player – 40 year-old goalkeeper Ali Boumnijel.
The centre of midfield is dominated by two big personalites – captain Riadh Bouazizi and the energetic and aggressive Adel Chedli. Up front Tunisia will rely on the goals of dos Santos, a star of the 2004 Nations Cup victory and the possessor of an extremely healthy international scoring record. There is a doubt surrounding his fitness for the opening match, however, and there is a strong possibility that he could be replaced by Yassine Chikhaoui this afternoon.
Despite the probable loss of dos Santos and being undoubted third favourites for Group H, Lemerre is insistent that a decent win this afternoon can give his squad the confidence to upset either Spain or Ukraine and claim a place in the second round.
“The first match will be the first key,” he said on Sunday.
“Whoever opens the door in the first game can hope to progress. Psychologically it is very important.”
Trabelsi echoes his coach’s prediction.
“This going to be the most important and the most difficult match for us,” he predicted.
“I think both teams have a chance to win because both want a good start to the group. We are in our third consecutive finals and it is our aim to reach the second round.”
Saudi Arabia’s Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta is aiming for a better start than his team have achieved in their last three opening World Cup fixtures. The Saudi Arabians endured narrow defeats to Holland in 1994 and Denmark in 1998, before being crushed 8-0 by Germany in their opening match at the last World Cup in Korea and Japan. Paqueta is confident that his team can banish the memory of 2002 and emulate the unlikely feat achieved by the 1994 team – a second-round berth.
“We have a plan and the players feel good,” he revealed yesterday.
“I think 2002 is behind them and they want to do everything possible to wipe the slate clean.”
The Saudi’s squad features world football’s most capped player, 33-year-old goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deaya. If, as expected, Al Deaya starts this afternoon it will be his 182nd cap – an astonishing achievement, even allowing for the high proportion of friendly matches and unofficial games within that figure. This will be his fourth World Cup Finals, emulating the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Paolo Maldini.
It will also be star striker Sami Al Jaber’s fourth World Cup Finals, and much of Saudi Arabia’s build up to this afternoon’s match has centred on the prolific marksman’s fitness. Al Jaber missed his country’s final warm-up match, an 8-0 thrashing of Frankfurt Reserves last Thursday with a knee problem. Three days prior to that game Al Jaber had scored an amazing seven goals in a 15-0 victory over another German amateur side.
Paqueta is hopeful that Al Jaber will be fit to face the Tunisians, particularly following the news of a potentially tournament-ending injury to Saudi Arabia’s potentially most exciting player, the 21 year-old forward Mohammed Al Anbar. Al Anbar is known as the ‘Ronaldinho of Saudi Arabia’, and was tipped to make a big impact on the world stage over the next few days. A twisted ankle looks to have ended those hopes. In Al Anbar’s absence, Al Jaber’s strike partner at Al Hilal, Yasser Al-Qahtani, looks a safe bet to start.
Paqueta has coached to Brazilian under-17s and under-20s to their respective world titles, but he is under immense pressure from the notoriously impatient Saudi FA to guide the Saudis through to the knockout phase. He is often criticised for preferring players from his former club Al Hilal, with whom he enjoyed good success before taking the national team job and is likely to employ a standard and uncomplicated 4-4-2 formation.
Paqueta has played down the fact that there will be thousands more Tunisia fans than Saudis at this afternoon match.
“I don’t see that as a problem,” he predicted.
“I see my boys as very motivated. Once the match begins they will show their composure, confidence and good morale.”
By Mark Robinson
Tunisia: Boumnijel; Trabelsi, Jaidi, Hagui, Jemmali; Namouchi, Mnari, Bouazizi, Chedli; Jaziri, Chikhaoui
Saudi Arabia: Al Deaya; Tuker, Sulaimani, Montashari, Dokhi; Al Kariri, Ameen, Noor, Al Shalhoub; Al Jaber, Al Qahtani
Referee: Mark Shield (Australia)