Having spent his entire career in Tunisian football, Mondher Kebaier takes on a challenge like never before as he aims to bring Africa Cup of Nations glory to the national team – a team whose considerable promise has so often failed to bear fruit.
Three years after their race to the semi-finals of the African Cup of Nations (CAN), the Carthage Eagles – as Tunisia is nicknamed – hope to realize their considerable potential by seizing the trophy they won in 2004. .
Last time around, Tunisia advanced to the semi-finals before crashing to Senegal – who played much more impressive football before winning 1-0 in overtime. Much of the blame for their failure to advance to the final was directed against French manager Alain Giresse and his frequent tactical tinkering. Giresse left after only eight months of work.
Kebaier replaced him in August 2019 – as the Tunisian Football Federation were determined to have a local manager take the job. After having coached the biggest clubs in Tunisian football – CA Bizertin, ES Sahel, African Club and Esperance de Tunis – Kebaier was the natural candidate to take office.
“The federation was looking for someone who understands what people think about Tunisian football, and Kebaier ticked all the boxes, especially since he had managed local clubs and even the Tunisian Olympic team,” he told AXADLETM Tunisian sports journalist Naima Sassi.
“Nevertheless, despite all this experience, Kebaier has only won one title as a coach, with CA Bizertin in 2013,” noted Sassi.
As manager of the Carthage Eagles, Kebaier oscillates between the 4-3-3 formation he has invariably deployed in club football and a 4-2-3-1 formation which puts even more emphasis on the attack.
The pillars of this stylish tactical approach are FC Cologne midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, Youssef Msakni (Qatar Al Arabi winger) and Wahbi Khazri (attacking midfielder and striker of Frenchman Saint-Étienne).
After all, the record that saw them advance to the semi-finals stands at a respectable 16 wins, 4 draws and 4 losses in 24 games. The Carthage Eagles sailed in their undefeated CAN-22 qualifying squad.
Despite an embarrassing 1-0 loss to Equatorial Guinea in November, Kebaier’s men will play the third round of the World Cup qualifiers in March. Few experts expect them to miss Qatar in 2022 following their appearance in Russia 2018 (where they were nevertheless eliminated in the group stage).
However, the popularity of Kebaier in Tunisia does not live up to this solid record. “It must be said that the fans have much higher expectations of local managers,” said Sassi. “Some think the squad is too much for him to manage given the quality of the players he deals with.”
A common criticism of Kebaier is that he failed to take Tunisia to the next level by beating one of Africa’s soccer giants: they only managed draws against Cameroon and Nigeria under his mandate – while losing against Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria. Kebaier will have to raise the standards if Tunisia is to go all the way – as they face a tough test in their first game against Mali, an underrated team whose many strengths make them an outside contender to win the trophy.
“Even though the Tunisian team’s goal is to reach the semi-finals, Tunisian fans want them to win the Africa Cup of Nations,” Sassi said.
Kebaier will undoubtedly keep in mind that his predecessor Alain Giresse left the post after Tunisia’s exit from CAN-2019 in the round of 16.
This article has been translated from the original into French.
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