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FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff preview: Mali vs. Tunisia

A North Africa vs. West Africa matchup is among the opening duels when the first leg of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff in the African section kicks off on Friday between Tunisia and Mali in the Malian capital of Bamako. Les Aigles of Mali are attempting to qualify for their first ever World Cup and they have a brilliant opportunity to get the job done against a Tunisia team that is struggling in attack and under the stewardship of a caretaker coach following the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. Read more on the key players for both teams and how they may line up this week:

Mali

Manager: Mohamed Magassouba

Key Players

Ibrahima Koné

The 22-year-old striker is absolutely on fire when playing for Les Aigles. Mali was desperately searching for a reliable scoring option during the group stage of qualifying and Koné snatched his opportunity with both hands to seize the starting spot, feasting on a weak group to score five goals in five matches. The strong presence went on to score three goals in four games at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations and completed a spectacular 2021 by transferring from Norwegian football to French Ligue 1 side Lorient. At 6’3 (190cm), Koné will physically give Tunisia’s center backs all they can handle and could be the force that can launch Mali to their first ever World Cup.

Yves Bissouma

The Brighton & Hove Albion midfielder can play a variety of roles in the center of the park but with Mali is asked to be a creator for the attacking line moving forward. Possessing the ability to burst by defenders on the dribble as well as excellent composure on the ball, Bissouma plays a crucial role as the link between midfield and attack. The 25-year-old missed out on the group stage of qualifying due to a fractured relationship with manager Magassouba but his impact on the Eagles team was clear at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations after they patched things up.

Boubakar Kouyaté

Mali’s potential weakness lies in the center of defense with a notable lack of experience due to the injury absence of Falaye Sacko. Sacko’s usual center back partner Kouyaté has been Magassouba’s preferred option throughout qualifying and at the Africa Cup of Nations despite being locked in a relegation battle at club level for FC Metz in Ligue 1. A strong tackler with excellent physical tools, it is time for the player nicknamed “Kiki” to step up and help the Eagles lock down a Tunisian attack that has been uninspiring in recent months. The 24-year-old already has experience shutting out Tunisia at the 2021 AFCON in Mali’s 1-0 group stage victory and will be looking to make an impression on any scouts watching.

Expected formation and team profile

Magassouba likes his 4-2-3-1 formation and rarely strays from it. Right back and captain Hamari Traoré provides an excellent attacking and defending option while former Newcastle United left back Massadio Haïdara is a capable option on the left flank. The question will be who Magassouba goes with in the center of defense. Kiki Kouyaté has the most experience despite his young age and there are several options regarding who will partner him. 21-year-old Moussa Sissako was the main backup and it looks like this will be the Standard Liège player’s big opportunity to build on a club season where his playing time continues to increase.

Mali has numerous options for the two holding midfield slots. Amadou Haidara was featured the most at the AFCON in Cameroon with Mohamed Camara and Diedie Samassékou also featuring but the commitment of Everton player Aboulaye Doukouré adds a veteran presence who is likely to step right into the starting lineup, making a Haidara-Doukouré pairing the most likely. The aforementioned Bissouma is also capable of playing deeper but will likely feature in a more advanced role.

Koné’s spot up top is very secure but questions remain as to who will play out wide in the attack. Southampton winger Moussa Djenepo’s talent is unquestioned but his playing time in England has been limited exclusively to substitute duty. Moussa Doumbia’s situation is similar at French club Reims, but despite recently shaking off an injury he appears to be trusted more by Magassouba. Adama Malouda Traoré has set piece ability and a playmaking skillset that should see him start on the right wing with freedom to drift inside and find the ball.

Tunisia

Manager: Jalel Kadri

Key Players

Ellyes Skhiri

The FC Köln central midfielder is a crucial stabilizing presence in a talented Tunisian midfielder and his recovery from a recent knock comes as a great relief to supporters of the Carthage Eagles. Skhiri can do it all with the ability to make tackles and also get forward to add his class to the attack. The 26-year-old also has an excellent engine that has allowed him to be an important starter in the Bundesliga, and his role for Tunisia will utilize that attribute to provide defensive calm among his more attacking oriented midfield partners. With injuries to key players Dylan Bronn and Wahbi Khazri, Skhiri is the most important member of the Tunisian side heading into the World Cup qualifying playoff.

Youssef Msakni

Msakni is a player who represents the majority of the Tunisian team perfectly. The veteran captain can be maddening with his inconsistency with his spot in the team being questioned at some points but when he is at his best he provides highlight reel moments. At 31 years of age, the Qatar-based forward is finding his form at the right time because Tunisia will need more heroic moments like his match-winning goal against Nigeria if they are to overcome their attacking weaknesses and qualify for their second straight World Cup. Msakni missed out on the 2018 squad and will be eager to be the difference in what may be his last opportunity to play on the world’s biggest footballing stage.

Montassar Talbi

The 23-year-old based in Russian football has taken advantage of injuries in the Tunisian squad to seize his starting spot in the center of defense, excelling during the team’s run to the final of the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup after joining up at the semifinal stage. Due to the injury of Dylan Bronn, Talbi will be reunited with veteran Bilel Ifa, his central defense partner at the Arab Cup. The towering Paris-born defender is a steady presence despite his younger age who is solid in the air and the tackle while keeping things simple on the ball to avoid costly errors.

Expected formation and team profile

As the assistant of dismissed 2021 AFCON manager Mondher Kebaier, there are a couple of possible formations Kadri may use against Mali but it is likely that he will use a similar system to the one used in Cameroon. A 5-3-2 setup continues to be a potential option but the injury to center back Dylan Bronn makes the possibility less likely at this point. Talbi and Ifa have experience playing together and will be the center back pairing while Mohamed Dräger and Ali Maâloul are full backs who add plenty of ability moving forward with their crossing ability.

There are several options in the midfield for Kadri and other than the essential Ellyes Skhiri, the other two spots will come down to the caretaker manager’s personal choice. Aïssa Laïdouni showed promise at the AFCON and his excellent club form in Hungary may keep him in the starting lineup, but the return of veteran Ferjani Sassi after missing out on Cameroon may see him reclaim his spot. Anis Ben Slimane and 19-year-old Manchester United player Hannibal Mejbri are dynamic options who are just as likely to earn starts with their ability to create moving forward. If Kadri requires a more defensive presence then Espérance player Ghailene Chaaleli is a reliable option as well.

Due to Wahbi Khazri’s absence, the wide forward slots are guaranteed to be filled by veterans Msakni and Naïm Sliti. Sliti is another inconsistent presence who is capable of producing magic but his form has suffered for both club and country this season. Striker is the position that is causing Tunisian supporters the most headaches. Zamalek striker Seifeddine Jaziri was in excellent form during the group stage of qualifying but is in a rough patch with only one goal in 2022, coming in a 4-0 AFCON thrashing against Mauritania at a tournament he otherwise was quite poor in. Backup Issam Jebali has failed to do much in his few minutes, leaving the door open for a dramatic return for Taha Khenissi, who has not featured for Tunisia since November 2019.

Prediction

Injuries to key players for Tunisia along with an attack that continues to mostly misfire makes this a brilliant opportunity for a young and talented Mali side to qualify for their first ever World Cup. The ability to keep possession well will keep the North African side close but this tie is Mali’s to lose.

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