Khenissi, Msakni absences leave Tunisia short

Nabil Maaloul unveiled Tunisia's provisional World Cup squad on Monday, but while the Eagles of Carthage have reasons for optimism, their striking shortage risks leaving them without a goal threat this summer.

The North Africans are back on the grandest stage of all for the first time since 2006, and they already have their work cut out after being pooled in a testing group alongside England, Belgium and Panama.

Indeed, with the two European heavyweights up first, the Eagles appear primed to be the first of Africa's quintet sent packing in Russia.

Nonetheless, there's reason for optimism, with a squad packed with talent.

Al-Ahly's Nabil Maaloul and Hamdy Nagguez of SC Zamalek offer genuine quality from full-back, while Aymen Mathlouthi is an experienced option between the sticks.

The midfield trio of Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor and Ghaylen Chaalali in the heart of the park are dogged, determined, disciplined and can control games, and Wahbi Khazri is a creative presence who can also offer superb delivery from setpieces.

However, at the top end of the pitch, a raft of injury problems are in danger of derailing the Eagles' World Cup aspirations.

Youssef Msakni was always facing an uphill struggle to make the cut after picking up a cruciate ligament injury in April, and while there was some initial optimism within the Tunisia camp that he could yet make a recovery, he's not been included in Maaloul's selection.

It's a costly absence.

The forward may be erratic, and he certainly hasn't realised the potential that he demonstrated as a youngster, but he's capable of excellence on his day, and could have been the man to step up to the big occasion and prise open the English and Belgian defences.

Upon Msakni's injury, Maaloul claimed that the forward's loss was akin to Argentina heading to Russia without Lionel Messi.

Far-fetched, perhaps, but the Al-Duhail man - who was likened to the Barcelona superstar in his youth - delivered a Messi-esque display in the evisceration of Guinea during the qualifiers, netting a hat-trick, and there's no one else in the squad who could summon up the inspiration that he can offer.

Tunisia's chief attacking threat in Msakni's absence had appeared set to be the powerful Taha Yassine Khenissi, but the Esperance man became the latest injury casualty for the Eagles when he too was overlooked from the provisional squad.

it's a bitter blow for the player, but Tunisia will also be reeling after the loss of another key source of goals.

Khenissi may have struggled to find the net during the qualifying campaign, but he ended last year's CAF Champions League as joint top scorer after netting seven in 10 in Africa's premier club competition.

He'd have been a physical threat for the North Africans, but a muscle injury picked up while in action for Esperance last weekend has made him one risk too many for Maaloul, who still faces an anxious fitness wait on several of the players he is taking to Russia.

Midfielder Ben Amor has been sidelined since picking up a knee injury in a friendly against Iran in March, but still makes the cut, while Rami Bedoui has also been included.

Without Msakni and Khenissi, the door has been opened for Ahmed Akaichi to return to the fold.

The striker hasn't started a match for Tunisia since a friendly defeat by Cameroon in March 2017, but his opportunism and his work rate have made him an appealing option once again.

Akaichi doesn't lack endeavour, but may lack the prerequisite refinement to trouble Tunisia's first two opponents.

Maaloul's side were already up against it after the draw was revealed, and while they may have had enough quality to sneak through in another group, injuries and subsequently a reduced goal threat have left them with an awful lot to do.