Tunisia – The team to beat at ACoN 2012?

For a team that could just as easily be sitting at home watching on TV, they made a pretty good start.

Tunisia were seconds away from going the way of Egypt, Cameroon and Nigeria in this competition last October. With Malawi 2-1 up against Chad going into stoppage time, the South East African nation were about to cause another Africa Cup of Nations upset by sneaking to the finals alongside Botswana.

Tunisians everywhere could only watch events in N'Djamena and pray. Then, at the last moment, those prayers were answered. In the 94th minute, Karl Marx Barthelemy glanced home an equaliser for Chad to break Malawi hearts and send Tunisia to their tenth straight Cup of Nations finals.

With Ghana and Ivory Coast overwhelming favourites, Tunisia went under the radar in the build-up to this Cup of Nations. A pre-tournament 0-0 draw with Catalonia did little to fan flames of enthusiasm, before a 2-0 defeat to Ivory Coast almost doused them completely, their coach Sami Trabelsi describing it as simply “not good at all.”

“The team still has a lot to do with the midfield, attack and control of both ball and pitch,” said Trabelsi. 

Nevertheless, Tunisia's 2-1 opening game win over Morocco in Group C's North African derby has now given a nation inspired by the Arab Spring, a revolution they sparked, real hope that maybe 2012 will be the year of the Carthage Eagle.

Tunisia's players celebrate during their victory over Morocco

The game was a victory for collective over individual. For Morocco, defeat offers a harsh reality check after their coach Eric Gerets had spent time talking up his team's chances of going all the way. Defeat to the old enemy Tunisia, their bête noir, by the same scoreline as in the 2004 Nations Cup final, is a worrying setback.

For Tunisia, on the other hand, victory provides a welcome shot in the arm. “It's a precious win” Trabelsi raved. “It's good to have started this CAN (Africa Cup of Nations) with a win, because the last few CANs we started badly,” said Zouhaier Dhaouadi, who played an influential role down the left hand side of midfield, coming close to scoring with a shot that struck the post. “We want to play a big role in this competition and the first objective is to qualify.”

Their captain Karim Haggui, a member of that 2004 side, went further still. “Tunisia's new generation wants to write its own history and looking at the potential of these young players that we've got, I really hope we can write it at this Nations Cup.”

Despite Morocco's dominance of both possession and chances, it was Tunisia that provided the composure in Libreville, playing with an efficiency and a maturity that bodes well. Morocco had 67% of the possession and produced 16 attempts at goal but it was their North African rivals who took their chances, with five of theirn six shots on target and two ending in goals.

Defensively, Tunisia were also very impressive. The centre back partnership of Haggui and Toulouse's Aymen Abdennour showed aggression and spirit, while behind them Aymen Mathlouti made some excellent saves to deny Marouane Chamakh - who continues to misfire - and Mbark Boussoufa.

Abdennour and Haggui both seem to have been carved from the same slab of rock-hard Tunisian granite – two rugged, gutsy centre halves. As we can see using Stats Zone, they won 100% of the tackles they both went in for while nipping in to make 11 interceptions in and around the area. Indeed the below dashboard shows just how good Tunisia were in the tackle, completely dominating Morocco in that aspect of the game:

As we learnt from Egypt over the past three tournaments, through players like Wael Gomaa and Essam El-Hadary, a strong understanding between defence and keeper is key to AFCON success.

As with Egypt in 2010, Tunisia also showed they possess a healthy selection of game-changing options from the bench. Youssef Msakni came on to twist and turn his way to a wonderfully skilful second goal while the likes of Issam Jemaa and Oussama Darragi remained in reserve (the former through injury). Might another Mohamed Gedo, super-sub turned tournament top scorer, be within their ranks?

Tunisia already have the spine of a continental championship winning side. Last year, in the midst of revolution, the Carthage Eagles won the African Nations Championship (for domestic based players) thanks largely to a core of key players of whom many are included here. Korbi, Msakni – both scorers against Morocco – Abdennour, Darragi and Dhaouadi; all have tasted victory in national team colours already. Their manager at CHAN? Trabelsi. Darragi, Msakni and Korbi were also part of the Esperance side that won the CAF African Champions League.

Bearing in mind the last four tournament winners have all possessed majority domestic based squads, the importance of this core is difficult to overlook.

“We won the CHAN (African Nations Championship) during the revolution. Now we're going to do everything to win the CAN to give joy to Tunisia. We have several players who have played in the Champions League final and the final of the CHAN. That can only help us all,” explained Dhaouadi.

If they are to go far in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea, Trabelsi, who captained Tunisia against England at the 1998 World Cup, is right in saying his team must do more in midfield and control the ball better. But the early signs are encouraging for Tunisia, who look a reasonable bet to continue a trend that has seen a North African team lift the trophy at every Cup of Nations since 2002.

Follow the Cup with FourFourTwo's news, analysis and new ACoN version of Stats Zone – it's all free!

Jonathan Wilson: ACoN Diary: David Dein, visas & the art of groundhoppingMichael Cox: Ivory Coast fail to utilise Yaya as young Lass fails to show classTom Legg: Ghana up and running but still a work in progressJonathan Fadugba: Five to watch at ACoN 2012 (who don't play in England)