Tunisia vs England
Venue: Volgograd Arena
Kick off: 7pm
England’s search for a first World Cup crown since 1966 kicks off this evening with a Group G encounter with Tunisia.
With expectations dampened down for this tournament England head to Russia with a youthful side, lacking experience but possessing a clear identity shaped by coach Gareth Southgate.
England will line up with a back five with an emphasis on passing out from defence while utilising the speed of their attacking players and finishing prowess of Harry Kane.
Southgate said: “You learn lessons from the past, but this team shouldn’t be burdened with it because they’re a fresh group, most of them have very few international caps. The future is all ahead of them, so they have to be thinking about what’s possible.
“The players of the past and opportunities of the past are gone. This team is looking at things in a different way, trying to play in a different way.
“They have a hunger, a desire, we have better technical players than we’ve had in the past coming through our academies, so there’s a real enthusiasm.”
Southgate broke from his own tradition in revealing his starting line-up to his players on Saturday – and revealed the reasoning behind his decision when meeting the media in Volgograd.
“I think the players pretty much knew the team anyway from the way we work in training,” Southgate said. “I just felt it gives some clarity.
“It’s something that, in the couple of tournaments I played in, the managers did in the week leading up to the first game and I felt it did give everybody the opportunity just to really focus.”
Tunisia and England’s last encounter was in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup. England won 2-0 in Marseille thanks to goals from Alan Shearer and Paul Scholes.
The North Africans are back at a World Cup for the first time since 2006 after qualifying automatically from their section that included DR Congo, Libya and Guinea.
However, Tunisia have never progressed through a group stage at a World Cup in four previous appearances.
Southgate will be lining up against Tunisian Nabil Maalou in the dugout, who was assistant to Roger Lemerre at the 2006 finals. The 55-year-old was appointed in March 2017 following the dismissal of Henryk Kasperczak after Tunisia’s dismal showing in the Africa Cup of Nations.
Maaloul believes England’s team spirit under Southgate makes them a superior proposition to the star-studded sides of years gone by.
“It is true that Tunisia played against England in 1998, when they had great players like Beckham and Owen, but there was not the same great collective spirit,” he said.
“I think that this team has progressed enormously. They have young players, the third youngest they’ve sent to a World Cup. Maybe they’ve changed a bit in terms of their mentality, their attitude.”
The weight of pressure on England is often cited as a reason for their underwhelming performances in major tournaments – but they will not be alone in feeling that expectation on Monday night, according to Maaloul.
“There is enormous pressure on our shoulders – we represent Africa and the Arabic world and 12 million Tunisians who are behind us,” he said.