INTERVIEW: Tunisia coach highlights Egypt's strengths ahead of AFCON qualifier

Karem Yehia in Tunisia , Thursday 8 Jun 2017

Nabil Maaloul
Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul (Reuters)

Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul said it is hard to predict who will emerge as the winner of a tricky clash at home with Egypt in their opening African Cup of Nations qualifier on Sunday.

The perennial North African rivals will lock horns at Rades Stadium where the result could prove vital in the race to finish on top of Group J and earn direct qualification for the 2019 Nations Cup in Cameroon.

In an interview with Ahram Online, Maaloul lauded Egypt's progress under Argentinean coach Hector Cuper and spoke about his side's chances of winning what many anticipate to be a tie.

*Why have you decided to move the national team's matches from Monastir to Rades Stadium in the capital even though this may mean less fan attendance due to the long distance and transportation problems?

What matters most is the condition of the pitch. I've visited many stadiums in Monastir and Sousse and elsewhere and I found that the Rades pitch is perfectly suited to the attributes of the Tunisian players.

*Aren't you concerned about possible low attendance at the match against Egypt?

The attendance might be low compared to the stadium's capacity of around 60,000 spectators, but I'll be satisfied if 10,000 or 15,000 attend the match; this was the average number when we were playing in Monastir. What's more important is the quality of the pitch.

*There is an ongoing debate about your selections for the AFCON qualifier against Egypt, with some saying you have taken a gamble by making "drastic changes" to the squad that played at the last AFCON. Do you agree?

There are no gambles; I picked those who are mentally and physically fit. I had no time to select players who are not ready yet and the changes are not that big compared to the last AFCON. I was forced to make some changes mainly because of the injuries that our players have been hit with, including four in defence.

For example, Aymen Abdennour hasn't played a single game with Valencia since April and Ali Yacoubi was injured on the final day of the season. Oussama Haddadi and Hamdi Nagguez are also injured.

I selected those who have been regularly playing with their teams whether inside or outside Tunisia, with extra emphasis on the local clubs who are participating in African competitions. I picked the players who are highly ambitious because, for me, individual skills are not enough. What's very important is the fighting spirit that each player should boast.

*Do you think the new faces can quickly gel into the team? Did you have enough time to prepare your side during this short period?

My players are technically and mentally ready for the 11 June clash. Hector Cuper might have an advantage because he has been with Egypt for longer but this does not mean his side will have a better chance to win; chances are equal.

It's the fifth time for me to be part of the national team's backroom staff as I had previous spells as an assistant coach. I have enough knowledge of the team.

*Which aspects of Tunisia's game are you looking to improve?

There were positives under former manager Henryk Kasperczak which I'm keen to maintain and improve upon and there were some weaknesses which I will address. The weak points were obvious during the last AFCON in Gabon.

*You were in charge of Tunisia back in 2013. Do you think you have a better chance this time around to achieve better results?

We have a very good chance to qualify for the World Cup this time. We are joint leaders of our group with DR Congo, who are a strong side with many European-based players. Our double-header against them in August will determine our fate. In general, the atmosphere is better now than in 2013 and there are fewer problems.

*Cuper said he knows nothing about the strategy Tunisia will adopt against Egypt, but highlighted Youssef Msakni and Naim Sliti as your best options upfront. What is your comment?

Egypt and Tunisia know everything about each other. Egypt watched many of Tunisia's recent games; the upcoming clash between the sides will have no secrets. The outcome will mainly depend on the individual differences.

*What are your expectations for the game?

Given my experience in matches pitting North African rivals against each other, it's very hard to predict the outcome. Tunisia-Egypt games are derbies that are difficult to predict.

*In the latest FIFA ranking, Egypt remained on top of African teams and 20th overall while Tunisia, who advanced one position, were ranked sixth in Africa and 41st overall. Do think this has any significance?

This has no bearing on the match. Like I said, it's a special derby.

*How do you assess the Egyptian national team?

Egypt is one of the best teams in Africa. They missed out on three straight Nations Cups but they came back stronger, boosted by discipline, experience and the work of Hector Cuper.

Egypt is not just about individual skills but also a structured attacking and defensive unit. However, their key players are still Mohamed Salah, Ramadan Sobhi and Mahmoud Trezeguet, although I just learned that Trezeguet has picked up an injury.

*What do Arab players need to do to become as professional as their European counterparts?

The mindset of Arab players has already changed and they are now much more disciplined. Look at Mohamed Salah, who is set to join one of the best English clubs in Liverpool. Trezeguet and Ramadan Sobhi also have a great future ahead of them. Things are changing enormously.

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