Abdennour plays down Tunisian chances

Think of Monaco, and palaces, stardust and opulence immediately come to mind, an image that has only been reinforced since the arrival of Dmitry Rybolovlev as the owner of the principality’s football club in 2011.

AS Monaco have spared little expense in recent years in bringing some big names to the French Riviera, among them Jeremy Toulalan, Radamel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Dimitar Berbatov, though not all of their recent acquisitions can be described as household names.

Their Tunisian centre-half Aymen Abdennour is a case in point, the kind of player who is far happier to avoid the limelight than bask in it. That does not mean to say, however, that the 25-year-old has not got himself noticed since making his French Ligue 1 debut with Toulouse in 2011.

The French media certainly sat up and took notice of him when he gave his views on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s performance in a September 2012 meeting between Toulouse and Paris Saint-Germain.

“I didn’t see him. He showed me nothing and he didn’t run,” commented the less-than-impressed defender, voicing the kind of opinion that the Swedish superstar has rarely elicited since sweeping into Ligue 1.

Frank and unassuming off the pitch, the tall centre-half is a model professional on it, going about his duties with a minimum of fuss. If there is one player in the French game that is the antithesis of a football star, then that man is Aymen Abdennour.

“I like keeping things simple,” the softly spoken Tunisia international told FIFA.com. “I’m a calm person and I don’t like making waves. I’m just an average Joe. I keep myself to myself and my feet on the ground.”

While he likes to maintain a low profile, the strapping, shaven-headed stopper has plenty of presence on the field of play, and has established himself as one of the finest defenders in Ligue 1 and the mainstay of his national team’s rearguard, not that he would ever describe himself in such glowing terms.

“Whether I’m playing for my club or my country, I’m just part of a team,” he said with typical modesty. “I’m nothing without my team-mates and everything I do is to help them. The fact that I’m playing for a big club and that I’m the only member of my national team to be playing in the Champions League doesn’t mean to say that I’ve got any kind of special status. I have to stay grounded and give everything I’ve got in training. Since starting my career I’ve played every match exactly the same way, like a young kid who’s making his debut with the pros.”

That approach has paid handsome dividends for Abdennour so far. In commanding form in the UEFA Champions League, the Tunisian was one of the main reasons why Monaco conceded just one goal in the group phase, fewer than any other side in the competition. And in heading in their opener in the 2-0 defeat of Zenit St Petersburg last December, he took their Group C goal tally to three, ensuring that they would not have the dubious honour of being the lowest-scoring side ever to advance to the last 16.

Curiously, Tunisia recorded similar statistics in qualifying for the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, ending the preliminaries with the second-best defensive record and the lowest goal count of all the sides reaching the continental finals.

“It’s the three points that count,” retorted their defensive linchpin. “Obviously, teams always want to win in style, but if we get the win without the style, then I’ll take it.”

The Carthage Eagles have been revitalised since Belgian coach Georges Leekens came in to replace former Netherlands international Ruud Krol in April 2014, and their no-nonsense style of play is perfectly suited to Abdennour’s strengths.

It has also served them well at the Africa Cup of Nations, where they are well placed ahead of their final game in Group B against Congo DR. After playing out a goalless draw with Cape Verde Islands in their opening match, Les Rouges et Blancs came from behind to beat Zambia 2-1, a result that has put them on the brink of a place in the last eight.

Assessing their chances, Abdennour said: “There’s no doubt we’ve got a good team, but you can’t really say we’re one of the favourites.

“As long as we don’t relax and as long as we stay aggressive and focused, we can win matches, though there are a lot of things that have to happen if you’re going to come out on top a competition like the Cup of Nations. We’ll just have to see how it goes. It might sound strange, but it isn’t always the strongest team that wins this tournament.”

With reigning champions Nigeria having failed to qualify and legendary strikers Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o now retired from international action, Africa will be crowning some new kings in the very near future. Do not be surprised if the mild-mannered Monaco man is among them.


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