Nabil Maâloul was inside the Stade de Nice to watch England’s last outing at a major tournament, when they collapsed against Iceland in one of the most humiliating defeats in the national team’s history. But the Tunisia coach does not expect to see a repeat performance at the Volgograd Arena on Monday evening when England return to the fray against his side.
He has seen enough evidence over the past two years to cause him to think the opposition have not only improved since Euro 2016 but could win the World Cup. Only four members of the team that lost to Iceland are expected to start: Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. Much has been made of England’s regeneration under Gareth Southgate and Maâloul thinks it has made a difference.
“I was there watching and analysing the matches but I can say frankly I have not really focused on England’s performance during that match against Iceland,” Maâloul said. “I think that more than 70% of the players have changed since then. There is a new team that we are seeing in England. The current English team is much stronger than in 2016, so it won’t be the same.
“We know Harry Kane and Sterling are outstanding and the manager has chosen them because he is aware of their qualities. They don’t have a weakness in terms of speed. They could choose various plans and tactics. However we are ready for any plan they choose.”
Maâloul has identified Alli as the danger man and instructed his team to disrupt the Tottenham player’s partnership with his club-mate Kane. Alli, 22, has admitted in the buildup to this tournament that he has had a problem controlling his emotions in the past, missing crucial games through suspension. But he insisted it would not be a problem at the World Cup. Maâloul, asked whether he would advise his team to exploit Alli’s tendency for ill discipline, joked: “You’ve given me a good idea. I hadn’t thought about that.”
He went on: “Alli is a very good player, an excellent player. This is the future of the England national team. He can play anywhere: midfielder in the middle, behind the forward or out on the left. He’s so important.
“For us, it’s very important we close him down because we know the partnership between him and Kane, because they play together all season at Spurs. If we manage to break that association it would be a huge advantage.
“The English national team have lots of collective play, with [Ashley] Young or [Danny] Rose from the left, they have so many weapons. But the most dangerous weapon is Dele Alli in the way he sees the match and plays that last pass.”
Belgium and Panama, the other two sides in Group G, also play on Monday and Maâloul expects Belgium to top the group. But he believes Roberto Martínez’s team and England have the ability to win the tournament. “I think so sincerely,” he said. “It is true that Tunisia played against England in 1998, when they had great players like Beckham and Owen. Not all national teams have this luck.”
Maâloul is in his second stint in charge of Tunisia, and had a further spell with a team of under-23s at the Olympics in 2004. Tunisia have failed to win their past 11 games at a World Cup since winning their first match, against Mexico in 1978.
“We do have a certain level of confidence,” Maâloul said. “We know we’re in a very difficult group, one of the most difficult in the World Cup when you play against the No 3 in the world [Belgium] and an English team who have progressed so much in the last few years and are so much more attacking now but we have to have confidence.”
The Sunderland striker Wahbi Khazri, on loan at Rennes, is set to be available for Tunisia although he may lack match fitness, having not played for the Ligue 1 side since April.