VOLGOGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Tunisia fear facing England’s “most dangerous weapon” - attacking midfielder Dele Alli - but the North Africans will be pushing for an upset in their opening game on Monday, said coach Nabil Maaloul.
Gareth Southgate’s team has shown improvement since England’s humiliating defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016 and Maaloul believes the team in Russia is even better than the class of 1998, which included David Beckham and Michael Owen.
“It is true they had Beckham, Owen, and other players but I do not think they had the osmosis they have now,” Maaloul told reporters on Sunday ahead of the Group G match.
“The current English team is much stronger than the one in 2016 so it’s not going to be the same thing,” added Maaloul, who was in the stadium to watch England lose 2-1 to Iceland in France two years ago.
In addition to athletic prowess and speed, England boast Tottenham Hotspur’s Alli, whom Tunisia’s coach - himself a former midfielder - said was “excellent.”
When asked by a reporter whether Tunisia would seek to test Alli’s reputation for having a hot temper, Maaloul chuckled and replied: “You’ve given me a good idea! I had not thought of that.”
More seriously, Maaloul would like his ‘Eagles of Carthage’ to cut Alli off from his Spurs companion and England team captain, striker Harry Kane.
“If we manage to split this association on the pitch - that’s what I told my players - it would be very good.”
Maaloul lauded his young side and the four French-born players who joined the squad earlier this year.
“What’s given us a lot of confidence are our last friendlies,” said Maaloul, whose men held Portugal to a 2-2 draw in May and were only beaten 1-0 by Spain with a late goal earlier this month.
In four previous World Cup appearances, Tunisia have won only one game - against Mexico in 1978. With fellow African teams Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt all losing their opening games in Russia, Maaloul conceded that Tunisia were feeling the heat.
“We have huge pressure given that we represent Africa, we represent the Arab world, and we represent 12 million Tunisians,” said Maaloul, whose team will also face third ranked Belgium and Panama during the group stage.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and William Schomberg, editing by Pritha Sarkar