JOHANNESBURG, January 11 – Tunisia are hoping Youssef Msakni — the creative midfielder called Little Mozart — will pull the right strings at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations as they chase a second title.
Qatar club Lekhwiya have reportedly splashed 14 million euros ($18.5 million) to lure the 22-year-old from Tunis-based 2011 CAf Champions League winners Esperance.
The Msakni repertoire includes pushing forward with stealth to score often crucial goals, creating chances for team-mates with inventive passes, or expertly executing a set piece.
Msakni is a key figure in a team of dogged workers who have not progressed beyond the quarter-finals since a lone title nine years ago at home when they overcame Morocco in the first all-North Africa final.
They made last-eight exits in three of four subsequent tournaments, going down to Nigeria in 2006, Cameroon in 2008 and Ghana last year while dropping out after the first round of the 2010 tournament despite not losing.
Luck evaded the Carthage Eagles at the draw for the latest Cup of Nations in South Africa as they were grouped with Ivory Coast and Algeria — the top two ranked teams in Africa — plus Emmanuel Adebayor-inspired Togo.
Tunisia face neighbours Algeria for the first time at the finals on January 22 at Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in mining town Rustenburg and a win for either side would install them as favourites to progress with the Ivorians.
Coach Sami Trabelsi, who arrived with a bang in 2011 by winning the African Nations Championship for home-based footballers in Sudan, has set his squad a minumum target of reaching the quarter-finals.
“This is unquestionably the toughest of the four first round groups, but we are not complaining,” he told South African reporters after the draw in Indian Ocean city Durban.
“My players are working really hard and I believe we can go far — maybe even to the decider again,” he said, referring to the 1996 final defeat by hosts South Africa in Johannesburg.
Trabelsi needs no introduction to South Africa as he played in the final and has brought often elusive consistency to the national team as coach, although they had a scare en route to the 2013 tournament.
After coming from behind twice to hold Sierra Leone in Freetown, Tunisia justified their role as favourites to win the tie, but needed the away-goal rule to scrape through against rivals who played most of the game a man short.
Long-serving goalkeeper Aymen Mathlouthi captains the team and will be desperate to atone for an amateurish error that gifted Ghana the winner in a 2012 quarter-final.
Trabelsi hopes defender Aymen Abdennour takes good club form into the 22-day tournament, that skilful Oussama Darragi links cohesively with Msakni and that erratic leading scorer Issam Jomaa hits top form.