AFRICA'S premier international tournament is upon us. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the Group B encounter on Sunday between Tunisia and Senegal.
Tunisia v Senegal | Sunday 19:00 | Eurosport
Tunisia arrive at the 2017 African Cup of Nations a little under the radar. Pitted in a pool alongside big-hitters Algeria and Sunday’s opposition Senegal, the Carthage Eagles have are flying a little under the radar.
Too often this team has failed to perform on the continental stage – the 2004 success is the North Africans only taste of silverware – but under the stewardship of AFCON legend Henryk Kasperczak, they won’t be easy meat.
The Polish coach is entering his eighth AFCON and has built on the solid foundations in the side to forge a cohesive unit that’s devilishly difficult to beat.
Eagles robust opposition
Tunisia have won seven of nine competitive outings under Kasperczak and although performances haven’t always matched results, the doggedness of their approach in a settled 5-4-1 formation means matches involving the Carthage Eagles are unlikely to be thrill-a-minute affairs.
Tunisia’s resilient back-line is actually suited to tournament football and with Aymen Abdennour and Syam Ben Youssef holding that five-man defence together, Senegal will need to be at their attacking best to pick up maximum points in the opening encounter.
Just don’t expect fireworks from Kasperczak’s troops. Whabi Khazri is integral to their success; the Sunderland man is a crucial creative hub in the hole and Youssef Msakni has also made headlines in a playmaking role but eight of the North Africans’ 16 goals in qualification arrived in one game.
Warm-up matches haven’t gone exactly to plan – Tunisia lost 3-1 to a Basque invitational team and 1-0 to Egypt either side of a 2-0 win over Uganda. But they’ve suffered only two international defeats since 2014 and are unbeaten in eight AFCON openers (W4-D4-L0).
Highly-rated Senegal have arrived in Gabon with arguably their best squad since the 2002 dream team that rocked the planet at the World Cup and claimed their sole African Cup of Nations title in the same year.
The Lions of Teranga have often struggled to translate high expectations into tangible success but under Aliou Cisse’s stewardship, the West Africans have flourished, qualifying with a 100% record.
An unfortunate defeat against South Africa during 2018 World Cup qualifying remains their only reverse in competitive action under Cisse and there’s a lovely balance to the 4-3-3 approach favoured.
Arguably the tournament’s best defender Kalidou Koulibaly is partnered by the impressive Kara Mbodji at centre-half with a midfield three of Idrissa Gueye, captain Cheikhou Kouyate and Mohammed Diame as good as any at AFCON 2017.
Further forward, the West Africans can call upon the continent’s most expensive player, £34m-man Sadio Mane plus Moussa Sow, Moussa Konate and Keita Balde – there’s pace, power, strength, trickery and a clinical nature that provides the side with a wealth of artillery.
The betting angle
The Lions of Teranga have scored in nine of their past 10 games and notched at least twice in eight of their last nine. In fact, six of Senegal’s most recent nine outings have ended in a 2-0 correct score. A repeat here is 9/1 (BetVictor).
Senegal have claimed only one triumph in 11 AFCON matches (W1-D3-L7) and being a tough tournament opener, I’m not especially keen to go diving in head first, especially against such robust opposition.
Therefore, I’m going to support the 1-0 correct score (5/1 William Hill) as well as 1-1 at 11/2 (BetVictor). In the first round of group games at AFCON tournaments this century, the 0-0, 1-1 or 1-0 correct scores have landed on 41/55 (75%) occasions with 1-1 proving most popular (31%) following Group A’s encounters.
This looks like your old school attack against defence clash and whilst I’d favour Senegal to squeeze out a narrow success, I can’t see this showdown being settled by more than a couple of goals.
Tunisia v Senegal – Senegal to win 1-0 (5/1 William Hill)
Tunisia v Senegal – 1-1 correct score (11/2 BetVictor)