Ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the chances of Senegal as they return to the tournament for the first time since 2002.
Senegal will be appearing at the World Cup for only the second time in Russia this summer, but if their previous campaign is anything to go by then they are certainly one to watch.
The African nation produced an unforgettable run to the quarter-finals in 2002, which all started with victory over the reigning world and European champions France in the very first game of the tournament.
Now it is the turn of Sadio Mane, Cheikhou Kouyate and Idrissa Gueye to follow in the footsteps of the likes of El Hadji Diouf, Papa Bouba Diop and Alou Cisse – the latter of whom now coaches the team.
Here, Sports Mole assesses Senegal’s chances of once again making an abiding impact on this summer’s tournament in Russia.
Senegal are not a nation that will be daunted by a tough group after finishing above France and Uruguay in 2002, but the draw was kinder to them than it might have been in Group H.
Robert Lewandowski‘s Poland and a Colombia team boasting the likes of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao will be the favourites for the top two spots, but the Poles are appearing in their first World Cup since 2006 and Colombia very nearly missed out on qualification.
Japan are the lowest-ranked team in the group, which means that Senegal’s match against them on June 24 could be crucial, but the Lions of Teranga will go into the tournament no doubt believing that they can pull off some more shocks.
June 19: Poland vs. Senegal (4pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)
June 24: Japan vs. Senegal (4pm, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg)
June 28: Senegal vs. Colombia (3pm, Cosmos Arena, Samara)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Senegal passed through their qualifying campaign unbeaten – but not without controversy – to reach Russia 2018, beginning in November 2015 with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Madagascar.
Cisse’s side were subsequently drawn against Burkina Faso, Cape Verde Islands and South Africa in the second phase, and just one win from their opening three games left them level with Burkina Faso at the halfway stage of the group.
Senegal went on to win each of their three remaining games to eventually finish five points clear, although the match which sealed their place in Russia was a rearranged one against South Africa.
The initial fixture had ended 2-1 to South Africa, but remarkably FIFA cancelled the game due to a poor refereeing decision and ordered them to replay it in November 2017, when Senegal’s wins home and away against the 2010 hosts ensured their progress.
For a nation previously labelled as being ‘chokers’, Senegal have garnered a new reputation for being able to win matches the ugly way en route to their second finals appearance.
That was not quite the case in their five friendlies ahead of Russia 2018, however, as they drew three and lost one prior to a 2-0 triumph against South Korea.
The victory over the Koreans behind closed doors was much-needed, but they still required an own goal and penalty kick to pick up the win. Despite the talents in their forward ranks, breaking down opposition sides from open play has proved to be difficult.
Yet at the opposite end of the field, three clean sheets in four matches – aided by Kouyate and Gueye protecting the back four – provides hope that they can continue grinding out points.
Goalkeepers: Khadim N’Diaye (Horoya AC), Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Alfred Gomis (SPAL 2013).
Defenders: Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Moussa Wague (Eupen), Saliou Ciss (Valenciennes FC), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), Armand Traore (Nottingham Forest), Salif Sane (Hannover 96).
Midfielders: Badou Ndiaye (Stoke), Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), Cheikh N’Doye (Birmingham).
Forwards: Sadio Mane (Liverpool), Keita Balde Diao (Monaco), Ismaila Sarr (Rennes), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Moussa Konate (Amiens), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke), M’Baye Niang (Torino), Moussa Sow (Shabab Al-Ahli).
STAR PLAYER – Sadio Mane
Fresh on the back of a memorable campaign for Liverpool, albeit one that ended in agony with defeat in the Champions League final, Mane is very much the focus of this Senegal side.
Mane netted 10 goals in the Reds’ European run, including a close-range strike in the final against Real Madrid, and chipped in with the same number of goals in the Premier League.
Now, minus the talents of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, the ex-Southampton man must utilise his pace, strength and skill in Senegal’s second finals appearance.
Keita Balde and Moussa Sow also have a part to play in an exciting attacking midfield full of goals, yet it is Mane through the middle who can have the biggest say in what is a competitive group.
MANAGER – Alou Cisse
Cisse will have very fond memories of the World Cup, having captained his country on their only previous appearance at the tournament in 2002.
A former Birmingham City and Portsmouth midfielder, Cisse spent the majority of his playing career in France and won 35 caps for Senegal overall between 1999 and 2005.
The 42-year-old spent a short spell as caretaker Senegal boss in 2012 before earning his coaching stripes with the Under-23 team, first serving as an assistant before taking over the reins from 2013 to 2015.
The main job followed in 2015, and Cisse has since impressed in charge of the national team with an unbeaten record in qualifying.
WORLD CUP RECORD
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2002)
Senegal’s one and only World Cup campaign will not be forgotten in a hurry, and they left an enduring mark on the tournament after their very first game when Bouba Diop’s finish at the end of a rapid counter-attack was enough to dethrone defending champions France.
A 1-1 draw with Denmark was then followed by a thrilling 3-3 draw with Uruguay, when they squandered a three-goal lead but still managed to book their place in the last 16.
Two goals from Henri Camara saw them come from behind to beat Sweden after extra time in the first knockout round to continue their incredible run, but that finally came to an end in the quarter-finals when Turkey won 1-0 – again after extra time.
Senegal have therefore played five World Cup matches before, winning two with two draws and one defeat while scoring seven goals and conceding six in the process.
Senegal may struggle to replicate their 2002 heroics this summer in Russia and we expect them to miss out to Colombia and Poland on Group H.
VERDICT: Third in Group H