Weblog: The football punter

England should trump Tunisia in World Cup

World Cup Group G
BBC1, 7pm Monday

Gareth Southgate was in the England team that defeated Tunisia 2-0 in their opener at France 1998 and he can steer the Three Lions to another comfortable victory over the Africans in Volgograd.

Much has been made of the inexperience of England's squad which features only one player with more than 50 caps - defender Gary Cahill has 60.

But going to Russia with a young group has been a conscious decision by Southgate, who wants to dispense with the mental baggage associated with England's 2-1 loss to Iceland at Euro 2016.

Southgate is striving to take the shackles off his players and a recent switch from two holding midfield players to one, first trialled in the 2-1 success over Nigeria at Wembley 16 days ago, may allow England to play with more of a swagger than they showed in qualifying.

England finished top of their qualifying group with 26 points from 30 but Southgate sensed there was room for improvement and switched from a back four to a back three for the final group match against Lithuania.

They have steadily improved under the new system and go into the World Cup unbeaten in ten games.

England were also playing well in the build-up to Euro 2016 – beating Germany 3-2 and Portugal 1-0 before the optimism was punctured by a 1-1 draw with Russia in Marseille.

Russia showed little quality in that game but stayed in it, enabling Vasili Berezutsky to equalise in injury-time, and their cautious tactics are likely to be mirrored by Tunisia head coach Nabil Maaloul.

Tunisia are the top-rated African team at the tournament, according to Fifa's dubious rankings, although their ante-post outright price of 1,000-1 was larger than the quotes for Senegal (200-1), Egypt (250-1), Nigeria (250-1) and Morocco (500-1).

They came through a weak qualifying section and have lost their two best strikers, Youssef Msakni and Taha Yassine Khenissi, to injuries.

The lack of quality forwards has forced Maaloul into a rethink and he has been deploying winger Wahbi Khazri in an unfamiliar centre-forward position.

Khazri has had a decent season on loan at Rennes, scoring nine times, and is the Tunisians' leading scorer with 12 international goals.

The 27-year-old has good technique, as he regularly demonstrated for Sunderland with deliveries from the flanks, and it makes sense for Tunisia to get him into areas where he is more likely to get shots at goal.

Tunisia's main preoccupation will be to keep England quiet and they will have earned some respect from the Three Lions after narrowly losing 1-0 to Spain in their last warm-up game.

However, the tempo of major tournament football is very different and England will be under instructions to move the ball quickly.

Southgate's project to play one holding midfielder (Eric Dier or Jordan Henderson) is still in its infancy but it worked a treat for 45 minutes against Nigeria and should help England to assert themselves over Tunisia.

There will be some nerves around while the score stays at 0-0 but England should get their noses in front and can win with a bit to spare.

England -1 on Asian handicap

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Match in Focus


Albania v Wales

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Key stats
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Expert verdict
Wales will be down in the dumps after failing to top their Nations League group following a home defeat to Denmark on Friday, although they take a serious drop in grade against an Albanian side, who not only played 24 hours later so are more fatigued but also did so with ten men for 70 minutes of the 4-0 loss to Scotland.