• Jeremy Magan

Tunisia, Denmark, France: What the Socceroos can expect from their opponents in Qatar

The Socceroos kick off their World Cup campaign on November 23rd at 6am AEDT. They will face France first, just like in 2018, and like in Russia, Denmark is also on the menu. Tunisia is replacing Peru to bring a bit of novelty in 2022. Getting out of the group stage would be no small feat for Australia, given the talent they are facing. Front Page Football takes you through everything you need to know about Australia's upcoming opponents in this comprehensive preview.


Tunisia


Tunisia is Group D’s relatively unknown entity. The team coached by Jalel Kadri arrives in Qatar without any massive stars in their ranks but with the ambition to finally reach the knockout stage for the first time in their history.


Tunisia is seemingly a second-tier nation of African football, behind their Maghreb neighbours Morocco and Algeria, Egypt, Senegal, and even Cameroon. Qatar will be their sixth World Cup since its independence from France in 1956. They have never reached the knockout stages in their five participations but have come close to genuine upsets. The last one was in Russia in 2018, against England, when Tunisia was level with Harry Kane’s team in the group’s opening game. But a header from the Three Lions captain in the dying stages gave the favourites the win.

The team that went to Russia in 2018 has not changed much in four years. (Marco Iacobucci Epp, Shutterstock)


Their second straight qualification to the World Cup came after an almost perfect qualifying journey, losing only one out of six games. They initially finished first in an open group featuring Equatorial Guinea, Zambia, and Mauritania. Tunisia then made it through the play-off by seeing off Mali (1-0, 0-0), thanks to an own goal from Moussa Sissako that went viral worldwide. The poor defender’s nightmare night also included being sent off four minutes later. Despite the good results in the initial qualifying stage, Mondher Kebaier was thanked after Tunisia were knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the Africa Cup of Nations. That's when Kadri took over.


Since his appointment, the crafty manager has only lost one game against Brazil in September, a 5-1 defeat.


“We respected Brazil too much,” Kadri said immediately after the game.


Before that, though, he started by successfully qualifying his nation for the World Cup against Mali. Judging the Carthage Eagles’ level compared to the Socceroos, a critical result was their success in the Kirin Cup, a friendly tournament played in Japan back in June. They defeated Chile 2-0 and Japan 3-0 to win the competition. The victory in the final was their first ever against the Blue Samurai, and the way that game played out should give Tunisia’s opponents an idea about their game plan.


Kadri often favours an offensive-minded 4-3-3 against teams of a similar level. However, he happily switches to a dense, more defensive 4-5-1 against stronger teams, with quick transitions and direct attacking football when they recover the ball. The latter is what happened against Japan. Tunisia defended well, with intensity, winning a lot of 50/50 duels, and always threw a body at the ball when their opponents created half chances. They then focused on attacking fast and aggressively. They were rewarded with a penalty to open the scoring, thanks to the technical ability of their front line.


One of the keys to this Tunisian squad is their strong midfield. Aïssa Laïdouni (Ferencváros), Ghailene Chaalali (Espérance de Tunis) and Ellyes Skhiri (1. FC Köln) are a formidable trio that represents the value of this team. The technique is silky, and the passing accurate, but more importantly, the aggression against the ball is second to none. Regarding backup, former Lille and Dijon player Naïm Sliti can come in. Or, depending on the tactics, Brondby IF youngster Anis Ben Slimane can drop back from his usual role as a winger. Both of them are as hard-working as the starting three.

Tunisia forward Wahbi Khazri's wonder-goal in Ligue 1 last season.


Overall, the team is experienced. From Salernitana defender Dylan Bronn to Montpellier forward Wahbi Khazri, most players have been playing together for the past five to six years. The addition of young talent might make a difference in 2022. Manchester United youngster Hannibal Mejbri should be a familiar name (he's on loan at Birmingham this year). Besides Chaalali, Laïdouni, and Ben Slimane, another youngster has settled into the starting line-up.


A Ligue 1 revelation this season in France is 190cm, 24-year-old defender Montassar Talbi. He helped Lorient get off to a superb start, losing only one game in their first 10. They still sit fifth on the table today, just behind Marseille, but in front of Monaco, Lyon, Lille, and Nice. He and Bronn have formed an athletic, intelligent, and solid partnership.


Tunisia starts with a substantial test against star-studded Denmark six hours before France faces Australia. The Socceroos will face a real challenge against the Carthage Eagles in the second game. The winner of this showdown has a chance at a qualifying upset for the last game of the group.


Player to watch – Youssef Msakni


A hero Tunisian fans have a love/hate relationship with, Youssef Msakni finally has a chance to shine on the world stage. It will likely be his last World Cup. The 32-year-old forward has an intriguing story. He was scouted by big French clubs in 2012 (Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Lille), won the African Champions League, and the Golden Boot in the Tunisian league. Despite such accolades, he picked a different trajectory, instead signing for a club in the Qatar Super League. This move was to the disappointment of Tunisians, who thought a superstar was blooming. His record transfer for an African player (€11.5 million) to Lekhwiya – now Al Duhail – translated to success on the pitch, though. Msakni averaged over a goal every other game for six seasons, attracting the likes of Arsenal, Tottenham, and Marseille. But he was always happy to stay in Qatar.

Youssef Msakni against Brazil in September 2022. (A. Taoualit, Shutterstock)


An ankle injury took away the chance to showcase his talent at the 2018 World Cup. It spoiled his Jamie Maclaren-esque season in the Qatar Super League (25 goals in 22 games). After finally going to Europe in 2019, his opportunity on loan at KAS Eupen was cut short after only seven games in Belgium. Now at Al Arabi, he plays the World Cup “at home” and intends to let his talent do the talking. On the wing or upfront, Msakni is instrumental to Tunisia’s attack. All the opportunities go through him, and he has a well-established understanding alongside Khazri, Ben Slimane, and Seifeddine Jaziri. Msakni may finally stop being the Tunisian poster boy for the “eternal prospect” should he perform well over the next month.


Squad


Goalkeepers: Aymen Dahmen, Mouez Hassen, Aymen Balbouli, Bechir Ben Saïd

Defenders: Mohamed Dräger, Wajdi Kechrida, Bilel Ifa, Montassar Talbi, Dylan Bronn, Yassine Meriah, Nader Ghandri, Ali Maâloul, Ali Abdi

Midfielders: Ellyes Skhiri, Aïssa Laïdouni, Ferjani Sassi, Ghailene Chaalali, Hannibal Mejbri, Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane

Attackers: Seifeddine Jaziri, Naïm Sliti, Taha Yassine Khenissi, Anis Ben Slimane, Issam Jebali, Wahbi Khazri, Youssef Msakni


Denmark


Potentially the dark horse of this World Cup, the Danish national team wants to build on their successful Euro and Nations League results to surprise everyone in Qatar. Christian Eriksen's comeback story and the emergence of Danish talents all over Europe have been the talk of the town in 2022. It's time to see if the group coached by Kasper Hjulmand can deliver.


De Rød-Hvide (The Red and Whites) also plays at their sixth World Cup. They are once again in the Socceroos' way. Since the 2018 group stage, a bit has changed in Denmark. Famed former Nordsjælland coach Kasper Hjulmand took over in 2020 and currently boasts a 67% win percentage. The UEFA Euro 2020 campaign was, of course, a big part of the current Denmark narrative. Despite Eriksen’s on-field cardiac arrest and starting the competition with two defeats to Finland and Belgium, they did enough in the third game (a 4-1 win over Russia) to qualify for the knockout stage. Two strong performances against Wales and the Czech Republic followed. Denmark only lost in the Euro semi-finals to a Harry Kane (him again) goal in extra time.

Denmark pose for a photo prior to facing Scotland in November 2021. (REUTERS, Russell Cheyne)


The Danes dominated their World Cup qualifiers, head and shoulders above the rest. Before the last game, a 2-0 loss to Scotland, they won nine out of nine, scoring 30 goals and conceding once, in the ninth game, after 89 minutes. A solid Nations League campaign followed the near-perfect record in qualifying. They beat France and Austria twice but could not get past Croatia. Hjulmand and his troops arrive in Qatar in fine form, confident, and with a fully fit squad.


This squad perhaps has one flaw: wearing the armband in the absence of Simon Kjaer, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has not had the best time for the past three seasons. He left Leicester City for France’s Nice in the summer and has not been particularly decisive for Les Aiglons. His performances with the national team have always been passable. For Denmark's sake, hopefully, he will show up with his international form rather than his domestic displays.


Besides that, it is talent after talent after talent in this squad. Kjaer was injured for the best part of last season, but 26-year-old pair Andreas Christensen and Joachim Andersen have flourished in central defence. Pace, passing ability, solidity, anticipation; this duo has it all.


Should one full-back position be shared between Rasmus Kristensen (Leeds) and Daniel Wass (Brondby), the other is promised to Joachim Mæhle (Atalanta). A revelation during the Euro 2020 run (two goals, one assist), Mæhle kept up his fine form with five goals throughout the World Cup Qualifiers. In the middle of the park, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Tottenham) and Thomas Delaney (Sevilla) play in the holding roles behind playmaker Christian Eriksen (Manchester United).

Thomas Delaney (centre, left) and teammates celebrate their victory at the Stade de France in the Nations League. (A. Taoualit, Shutterstock)


Two wingers happy to play in central positions when needed, Andreas Skov Olsen (Club Brugge) and Mikkel Damsgaard (Brentford), usually line up behind a sole striker. This striker is usually one of Kasper Dolberg (Sevilla), Martin Braithwaite (Espanyol), or Andreas Cornelius (FC Copenhagen). The supporting cast is as impressive. Kjaer (AC Milan) could undoubtedly be a starter in defence, whilst Alexander Bah has impressed with Benfica at right-back. Meanwhile, Christian Norgaard (Brentford) provides cover in midfield, and Yussuf Poulsen (RB Leipzig) can help at all three attacking positions.


Hjulmand usually lines up his team in either a 4-3-2-1 or 3-4-2-1, and they do not hesitate to switch during games. The adaptability of his players is key to his system. In a recent press conference, the manager explained his ideas.


"We try to use trust as an advantage in our team, so we get the best out of our players. And one thing I think our players are very good at is adapting and understanding tactical moves and the broader picture," Hjulmand said.


"At the Stade de France, we played in one system for a while, no matter what happened. [Then] we decided to switch, and it gave us new positions and something to think about for the opponents.


"We try to play dominant football, but against the best, we know we have to defend a little bit more than against other countries. But to be able to win, you have to be good at not only one part of the game, you have to be a more complete football team, and that's what we're trying to do."


Player to watch – Andreas Skov Olsen


Since he joined Belgian giants Club Brugge, he has scored 12 goals and provided 11 assists in the Jupiler Pro League. Young winger Andreas Skov Olsen is being touted as the next big thing from the club that also developed Charles De Ketelaere, Noa Lang, and Mæhle. A lengthy (187cm) left footer, Skov Olsen is deceptively quick and technically gifted. Although he is always happy to provoke 1v1 situations, his football IQ and passing ability are probably his best assets. He always makes himself available in the build-up, either in pockets of space or behind the defence, and is capable of attracting two or three defenders on the wing before using his precise left foot to cross or switch the play with a quick long ball. Off the ball, he understands his role and can alternate high pressing and zonal marking effortlessly.

Andreas Skov Olsen against Scotland. (Matthew Ashton, AMA)


His performances with the national team are as impressive. With five goals, three assists in the qualifying phase, and another two strikes in the Nations League, he is the future of his country at only 22 years old. His contributions on the right wing make him one of the main threats for Denmark, and this World Cup feels like his coming-of-age party on the biggest stage. Denmark may lack a bit in the striker position. However, Hjulmand is happy to use an anchor rather than a pure goal-scorer. But with Skov Olsen and Damsgaard or Jonas Wind on the other side, they are perfectly capable of filling this void.


Squad


Goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel, Oliver Christensen, Frederick Ronnow

Defenders: Simon Kjaer, Joachim Andersen, Andreas Christensen, Joakim Mæhle, Daniel Wass, Rasmus Kristensen, Victor Nelsson, Alexander Bah, Jens Stryger Larsen

Midfielders: Thomas Delaney, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Mathias Jensen, Christian Eriksen, Christian Norgaard, Robert Skov

Attackers: Andreas Skov Olsen, Yussuf Yurary Poulsen, Andreas Cornelius, Martin Braithwaite, Jonas Wind, Kasper Dolberg, Mikkel Damsgaard, Jesper Lindstrøm


France


Undoubtedly the favourites in this group, world champions France are ready to end the infamous holders' curse. Amongst the drama, Voodoo witches, tantrums, injuries, and the judges knocking at the French football federation’s door, the national team is still a world football powerhouse.


Since taking over ten years ago, Didier Deschamps followed a path of steady improvement, competition after competition. An encouraging quarter-final appearance in 2014 and the heart-breaking Euro 2016 Final, lost at home in extra-time, were the foundations for success in Russia in 2018. After that, things have not been all peachy in The Hexagon. The much-talked-about return of Karim Benzema before Euro 2020 did not foster the results expected. Despite a brace from the Ballon d’Or winner, France gave up a 3-1 lead in the last 10 minutes of their Round of 16 fixture against Switzerland before losing in a penalty shootout, with Kylian Mbappé missing the decisive penalty.


Fourteen weeks later, with a chip on their shoulders, Mbappé and Benzema scored in the semi-final and final of the 2021 Nations League. As a result, France ousted Belgium and Spain to lift a rather uncelebrated trophy. Expectedly unbeaten in the World Cup qualifiers – in a group with Ukraine, Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kazakhstan – Les Bleus still arrive in Qatar in somewhat mediocre form. Unable to defend their Nations League crown, they had a shocking summer campaign. They lost twice to Denmark, lost and drew to Croatia, and took four points off Austria, finishing third in Group A1 with only five goals scored.

The France squad at the World Cup in Russia. Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti, Blaise Matuidi, and N'Golo Kanté won't be in Qatar. (A. Ricardo, Shutterstock)


Granted, Deschamps tried to incorporate new faces in the past six months. Between injuries, players out of shape, and upcoming youngsters deserving a chance, France trialled experimental formations, whether 3-5-2, 4-3-3, or 4-2-3-1, calling on no less than 33 players between June and September. Injuries will significantly disrupt them in this World Cup, and France has already lost its world champion midfield pair, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. Raphaël Varane and Benzema are on the mend, likely to be rested against Australia, whilst Hugo Lloris and Lucas Hernandez are always at risk of another injury. Deschamps will have to be careful with his selection.


The defence and midfield have been the talk of the country this year. Lloris’ injuries saw Mike Maignan get his chance between the posts recently. Undoubtedly the next in line when the Tottenham goalkeeper retires, the AC Milan man did the job but is now out until January with a bad calf. The centre-back pairing will be heavily discussed, with PSG centre-back Presnel Kimpembé now out injured. The Varane-Samuel Umtiti duo of 2018 is far gone. The latter, injured since lifting the trophy, has barely played three games this season and is not going to Qatar. The images of Varane crying, his Man Utd shirt on his face, whilst he limped out of Stamford Bridge last month are still fresh in French minds, but the news since has been reassuring. Although he is not expected to start on November 23rd, the solid defender will play his part in Qatar.


Touted to start against Australia is a new centre-back pairing in the navy blue jersey: Jules Koundé and Dayot Upamecano. The latter, of course, plays next to Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard at Bayern Munich. The former has made a splash with his club performances in the past two seasons. But he is yet to prove himself with France, struggling when playing out of position at right-back. Both are right-footed, something Deschamps has consciously avoided until now. But the only left-footer would be Lucas Hernandez, and the French manager reiterated in a press conference that Lucas Hernandez was his left-back.


The left-field choice is, of course, Ibrahima Konaté. The Liverpool giant has not been consistent enough. But his size, sense of anticipation, and aggression make him maybe the best man-to-man defender for France. He could get his chance, and he has delivered every time he's worn the navy blue shirt. Either way, any duo would be the interim until Varane is ready to take over, next to whoever performs best. The full-back positions are promised to Lucas Hernandez and Pavard. But Theo Hernandez, Koundé, William Saliba, and Axel Disasi are ready to help wherever needed. Deschamps will line up with what brought him success countless times: four centre-backs at all four positions, ensuring his defensive block is dense at its core, solid, and athletic.


The midfield will see two current or former teammates playing beside each other. Aurélien Tchouaméni is in for a big tournament (more below). He should be accompanied by Youssouf Fofana, his former companion of two seasons at Monaco. We should also see Eduardo Camavinga, who plays next to him at Real Madrid, getting minutes later in games. Adrien Rabiot could start next to them, a la Matuidi 2018, in a hybrid defensive-mid-turn-left-winger when France has the ball. Matteo Guendouzi’s energy and Jordan Veretout’s grittiness and set-piece ability will be significant assets to sub in late in games. Regardless, we are looking at a relatively inexperienced midfield at an international level, where 2018 had a Pogba-Kanté pair combining for more than 130 caps.


We should remember the talent present, though. Tchouaméni and Camavinga are at Real Madrid for a reason. Meanwhile, Fofana is shining at Monaco and is soon due for a big move. Rabiot is probably the only player with a semblance of consistency at Juventus, and Guendouzi has been the heart and soul of Marseille for the past 14 months. All five are as combative defensively as they are comfortable with the ball at feet. They can provide for whatever magical trio or quartet plays upfront.

The key to France's success in Qatar: Can these two perform next to each other? (Ph. FAB, Shutterstock)


France's unmistakable, extensive, and even scary strength lies in the firepower in attack. Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud, Randal Kolo Muani, and Marcus Thuram. These names seem to be worth 20 goals in the group stage alone. Yet we know France is prone to struggle offensively in the first few games of these competitions (which could bode well for Australia). Doubt is always around the corner when Mbappé and his tantrums are in the locker room.


Deschamps will be thrilled to see his Ballon d’Or-winning striker rested by Real Madrid for the past three weeks. Benzema has only played 28 minutes since October 20th. At rival club Atlético Madrid, Griezmann seems to be slowly returning to the level he had in 2018. This team's “Petit Prince” could provide the most significant impact in the final third. Always keen to sacrifice himself for the team as the first defender, Griezmann is a confessed disciple of the high press and scrappy 1-0 wins. An in-form Griezmann can cause much damage with the ball and from set pieces. But he can also interrupt the opponents’ build-up play.


In front of him, there should be goal threats galore. The intelligence and finishing of Benzema, Mbappé’s speed, Giroud and Thuram’s immaculate goal sense, and Dembelé and Coman’s talent for trickery out wide make this France team frightening for any defence in the competition. Deschamps knows that. Should it all click, scoring one more goal than what they concede could be a reasonable plan for Les Bleus. It worked in 2018.


Should the World Cup champions curse ever go away, this team could break it. France seems equipped for a repeat, and anything less than a semi-final appearance would disappoint the holders.


Player to watch - Aurélien Tchouaméni


Alain Giresse – Luis Fernandez – Jean Tigana in 1984, Didier Deschamps – Emmanuel Petit in 1998, Deschamps – Patrick Vieira in 2000, Vieira – Claude Makélélé in 2006, Pogba – Kanté in 2016 and 2018. Every time France has or almost has succeeded, the defensive midfield pair/trio has been heroic, the best in the competition. With the duo that had settled as the six and eight for the past seven years injured, Deschamps will need to reinvent his midfield, fully aware it will be the key to his tactics.


Enter Aurélien Tchouaméni. The 22-year-old midfielder has had a steady – and relatively quick – rise to fame since his debut with Bordeaux at 18 years old in 2018. He transferred to Monaco after only 25 professional games in January 2020, with his partnership with Youssouf Fofana key to the principality's good results under Niko Kovac in 2020-21. His less spectacular performances in the following season didn’t sway interest from Europe's biggest clubs. In June 2022, Real Madrid happily spent €80 million to see the French international join the UCL champions.

Aurélien Tchouaméni could be the next big thing for France. (A. Taoualit, Shutterstock)


In Spain, his talents have seduced peers, fans, and pundits. He's started 11 times in La Liga and five times in the Champions League, averaging over 50 successful passes per game, equally shared in either half of the pitch. His mind-blowing passing accuracy (93%) reveals his above-average technique, high football IQ, and ability to pick suitable passes. Equally able to be a more defensive or box-to-box midfielder, Tchouaméni has the opportunity to make a splash on the global scene, given his new role in the heart of the French team.


A successful campaign for the world champions will require strong performances from their midfield. In the past, lesser-known (at the time) players like Vieira and Kanté’s status elevated to world-class, and 2022 could be Tchouaméni’s moment to follow in the footsteps of his legendary predecessors.


Squad


Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Alphonse Areola

Defenders: Raphaël Varane, Dayot Upamecano, Jules Koundé, Lucas Hernandez, Theo Hernandez, Benjamin Pavard, Ibrahima Konaté, Axel Disasi, William Saliba

Midfielders: Aurélien Tchouaméni, Youssouf Fofana, Adrien Rabiot, Jordan Veretout, Matteo Guendouzi, Eduardo Camavinga

Attackers: Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappé, Randal Kolo Muani, Ousmane Dembélé, Olivier Giroud, Kingsley Coman, Antoine Griezmann, Marcus Thuram

 

The Socceroos will face France, Tunisia, and Denmark, in that order, between the 23rd of November and the 1st of December. Anything other than three exceptional performances and Australia's journey in Qatar will last only eight days. Graham Arnold's troops know how tough their group is. Let's hope they are ready for it.


Click here to listen to Christian Marchetti, Cody Ojeda, Antonis Pagonis, Matt Olsen, and Dylan Bozicevic dissect the Socceroos World Cup squad on the FPF Podcast.