Tunisia beat Sierra Leone on 23 March to maintain their perfect record in African Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, joining Congo and Egypt as the only teams to have won their first three matches in the second preliminary round within the continent. Nabil Maaloul, who took over the Carthage Eagles this year after leading club giants Esperance, remains measured despite five points between them and their closest chasers in Group B. FIFA.com caught up with the 50-year-old to discuss.
FIFA.com: With a comfortable margin over your group rivals - Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde Islands and Sierra Leone - Tunisia are well placed to reach the final qualifying round. Are you feeling positive?
Nabil Maaloul: To have a five-point lead with three matchdays until the end of the second round is of course an excellent position to be in. We would have preferred the match between Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde to end scoreless (the Nzalang Nacional won 4-3), but I think we are on the right track, and our success against Sierra Leone was a positive affair. This is an important step forward, but not decisive. We will need a total of 13 points to reach the third round, so we still need another four. And in this group, I believe that Sierra Leone remain our main opponents.
You struggled to break down the Sierra Leoneans for the first hour of your 2-1 win in Rades...
We had to be patient. The team was able to create a lot of scoring opportunities, especially during the first 20 minutes of the first half, which were exceptional. Collectively, we worked very well, but then there was a decrease in intensity. This decline and the loss of rhythm, which lasted several minutes, surprised me, and it proved to me that the team must work on its psychology and we must show more character.
Are you also concerned about the lack of effectiveness of your attackers?
I'd be worried if we had not managed to create chances, but that was not the case. We made opportunities for ourselves, and I think with a little more luck we could have won the match 5-1 or 5-0. [Oussama] Darragi and [Wahbi] Khazri scored in the second half, but once we were ahead 2-0 there was a degree of uncertainty and Sierra Leone took advantage. They did not have many opportunities, but they still might have made it 2-2.
Long-time striker Issam Jemaa missed several chances and was booed by the supporters. How do you judge the reaction of some fans?
Too often they tend to forget that he is the top scorer in history of the Tunisian national team (with 34 goals). It is unfortunate, but what can we do? He has already given so much to Tunisia and he will continue to contribute more. He is an important player who has great influence in the group. Yes, he missed chances against Sierra Leone, but it happens to all strikers, right? He has my full confidence and the group's as well.
Another key figure, Youssef Msakni, also seemed far from his usual level. Was his move from Esperance to Lekhwiya in Qatar the right one for the youngster?
It is true that against Sierra Leone, Youssef lacked pace. He was a bit diminished, but there was also very tight marking assigned to him. And he has played a lot in recent months, so it is normal for him to be a little tired. But to answer the question: I think that Qatar is a good choice because the championship there is better than Tunisia.
For the match you also recalled the veteran midfield duo of Karim Haggui and Yassin Mikari. What did you think of their performances?
I was very satisfied with their return. I also enjoyed the performance of Khazri Wahbi, who scored a superb goal, and Sofiane Chahed. These are players who will bring us a lot. I will use the next few weeks to make other contacts and to check in on other players such as Yacine Chikhaoui (at FC Zurich).
Will you organise a friendly match before travelling to Sierra Leone on 7 June for the resumption of Brazil 2014 qualifying?
No, it will not be possible since the cup in Tunisia should take place in early June. I will only be able to start working with the players for four or five days before the match in Freetown. For the last match, I waited until Wednesday, 20 March for my entire group to come together, which was not ideal, but we had to adapt.