Phil Smith: It’s a different game entirely, but Khazri’s African performances prove he merits a role in Sunderland’s survival scrap

Wahbi Khazri
Wahbi Khazri
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There was, for a while, a truly wonderful video on YouTube made by an Egyptian football fanatic.

Titled ‘Bale vs Elmohamady’, it featured a highlight reel of the two players.

Bale’s sublime hat-trick against Inter Milan featured, but the right-back’s showreel was somewhat less spectacular. Just one clip featured, the Egyptian advancing towards the opposition box. The video quickly ends before you see his shot fly high into the South Stand at the Stadium of Light. Taken on a windy day, the flying crisp packets swirling across the pitch add to the sense of farce.

It’s a reminder of the perils of judging players based on vines, gifs, overblown reports from afar, YouTube skill videos and such like.

Elmohamady has forged a very creditable career in British football, but the ‘Egyptian David Beckham’ he certainly proved not to be.

It’s with this in mind that it is worth taking a closer look at Wahbi Khazri’s starring role for Tunisia at the Africa Cup of Nations so far. Social media has been rife with reports of his brilliance and game-defining quality, which is true to an extent.

It is also certainly true that he is a player who Sunderland truly ought to have got more out of this season, a ball-player willing to take risks in a squad short on vision and flair.

Tunisia have been one of the most exciting teams in the tournament so far, putting four goals past Zimbabwe and scoring twice against heavily fancied Algeria. They lost 2-0 to Senegal in their opener, but, after Khazri’s introdiction at half-time, they were very unlucky to draw a blank.

Khazri is the jewel in their crown, given free reign as the Number 10 in a 4-2-3-1 system. Alongside Naim Sliti and Youssef Msakni, they have been of the most vibrant and fluid front lines.

Which begs the question, why isn’t Khazri a Sunderland regular, particularly given the injury crisis that has plagued the club this season?

The truth is that his AFCON performances so far have offered as much fuel for his detractors as his supporters, the game against Algeria a perfect example.

Khazri did indeed settle the contest with a moment of excellent anticipation, spotting that the centre-half was to head a long ball back to his keeper, tracking him all the way down the field and nipping in to intercept.

He showed a good touch, and good anticipation, to win a crucial penalty.

There were also some superb, unorthodox set-pieces that left the goalkeeper scrambling and begging to be nodded in.

Yet there were also frequent maddening moments, simple passes going astray. At one stage, Khazri received the ball with his full-back overlapping into a dangerous area.

Rather than play him in with a straightforward pass, the Tunisian attemped an audacious ball with the outside of his boot. It flew straight out of play and the attack was wasted.

Khazri also benefited from total freedom from positional discipline, simply moving wherever he saw space and not being required to track back.

That has worked well for Tunisia and his output has been good, but the demands of playing in a struggling Sunderland side are entirely different. It would be naive to think that he can simply drop these performances into the Premier League.

There is perhaps a comparison with Emanuele Giaccherini’s Euro 2016 performances. An entirely different player from what SAFC fans had seen, he was a marvel in Antonio Conte’s well-drilled 3-5-2, but there was never any prospect of him replicating that form on Wearside.

The same too, Jeremain Lens’ form for Fenerbahce. There was predictable outcry when he scored a superb goal against Manchester United in the Europa League this season, and while his ability is not in question, his application and commitment always undermined and would always undermine any potential future.

Khazri could yet step out of that category.

There is little doubt that his work-rate is streets ahead of Lens, and indeed many others, and he retains the ability to settle games with a special moment. He was unfairly singled out and maligned in some quarters for being merely one of many underperformers in a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal.

At his best, he is a vibrant, exciting talent. If Sunderland do keep hold of him this month, their predicament means they should give him greater opportunity to make an impact.

Nobody should expect him to be a sudden saviour, however. For Tunisia, he is a luxury player, his excesses and eccentricities indulged and indeed celebrated.

That is something to be admired, but, for better or for worse, it is not a freedom he will be granted any time soon in the North East.