The road to Russia
This will be Senegal’s second appearance at the World Cup after their heroics in Korea/Japan some 16 years ago. They progressed all the way to the last eight in that tournament, becoming only the second African nation to do so.
Their passage to Russia was impressive. They finished top of a qualifying group that included Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, and 2010 hosts South Africa. They also went the whole campaign unbeaten, scoring 10 times and only conceding on three occasions. Of all the African nations, only Nigeria and Tunisia finished their respective qualifying campaigns with better numbers.
How do they play?
Coach Aliou Cissé, who appeared for clubs in England and France during his playing days, took charge of the national team in March 2015. A man who seems destined to lead his country at the World Cup, he actually captained the side at their last World Cup outing in 2002. He’s a man who knows what he wants – “I do not look for sterile ball possession,” he told World Soccer. “I like the game to progress, to cause doubt among the opponent, to attack and to score goals.”
Cissé likes to play with a flat back four, a five-man midfield, and one target man up top. The midfield and attacking third are key areas for the Lions of Teranga, who have included the likes of anchormen Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate, and young flair in the form of Keita Baldé and M’baye Niang in their 23-man squad.
Who is their star player?
The star of the side, though, is Liverpool’s Sadio Mané. Coming off the back of a great club season – he was Liverpool’s best player in the Champions League final and scorer of their only goal – Cissé will be hoping his key man isn’t burnt out after a fixture-filled campaign last term.
The Senegal number 10 has over 50 caps for his country and has scored 14 times, making him one of the main goal threats in the team. Expect Mané to bring the same energy he brings in the red of Liverpool in the white and green of Senegal. The 26-year-old could also be a decent shout to finish as the tournament’s top assist man.
How far will they go?
In a group that includes Columbia, Japan, and Poland, Senegal could be Africa’s best hope for glory at the World Cup. Both Poland (8) and Colombia (16) are ranked above the Africans (27) in the FIFA rankings at time of writing, but what do rankings really mean in the grand scheme of things? Nothing.
Should Cissé’s men pick up a win in their opening fixture against Poland, which is more than possible, beat Japan in their second match, which is probable, and not lose to Colombia in the final group game, Senegal can look forward to a potential showdown with either England or Belgium in the last 16. And as we all know, in knockout competition, anything is possible.
What should we look out for?
The Senegal boss will be the only black coach at the finals, one of two African coaches in Russia (Tunisia’s Nabil Maaloul is the other), and only the 14th African coach to oversee a side at a World Cup.
Senegal should impress in Russia, but regardless of how well they do, one hopes we get to see Cissé given an opportunity to coach in club football in the near future.