As Premier League action continues into January 2017 with a gruelling festive schedule for all clubs, the month sees the commencement of the first international tournament of the year with the African Cup of Nations on the 14th of January. Sixteen of the best African teams will compete for continental glory as they lock horns across four cities in host nation Gabon, with African footballer of the year Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the charge for the hosts as captain.
Among the other strong teams in the tournament like Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Egypt, are Senegal. Managed by Aliou Cisse, who captained the team during their famous 2002 World Cup campaign, Senegal boasts of some exciting talent in their squad, and are major contenders for the title.
Here, we take a look at 5 reasons why Senegal can win the African Cup of Nations.
#1 Ruthless in qualification, with a 100% win record
The foundation for a successful run in any major international football tournament is often laid during the qualification process. Senegal swept aside Burundi, Niger and Namibia over two legs each to win all of their 6 games during qualification, scoring 13 goals in the process and conceding only 2.
Their pacy forward line of which Sadio Mane is an integral part, and a solid defence with Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli at the heart of it will be arriving at the tournament with plenty of confidence to carry their good form from qualification into the finals.
They also had as many as 9 different goalscorers during qualification with goals coming from all parts of the pitch, which demonstrates that they are not over-reliant on one specific player to get the job done for the team.
#2 They have one of the strongest squads in the tournament
Just a single reading of the Senegal squad for the African Cup of Nations has one rattling off the names of top-class talent plying their trade in the top 5 European leagues. Captained by box-to-box midfielder Chekhou Kouyate of West Ham United, Senegal have other big names such as Sadio Mane of Liverpool, Mame Biram Diouf of Stoke and Kalidou Koulibaly of Napoli, who is currently wanted by almost every major club in Europe.
While Koulibaly shores up the defence, the midfield also has the likes of Idrissa Gueye of Everton, who feeds forwards like Mane and Keita Balde Diao of Napoli to wreck havoc up top. Having played in big matches for their clubs, these players have the experience required to go far in a tournament of the nature of the African Cup of Nations.
#3 Easy knockout stage; Algeria only other real threat
Senegal have been clubbed in Group B along with Tunisia, Zimbabwe and Algeria, with the top two teams qualifying for the quarter-final stage of the tournament. On paper, Algeria presents the only other real threat to Senegal with the likes of Sofiane Feghouli, Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani among the big names in their team.
Zimbabwe have suffered a slump in form after finishing fourth in the 2014 African Cup of Nations, while Tunisia lack the same quality as that of the other qualified teams. Once past the group stages, the tournament is there for anyone to make their own, as results can go either way.
And with big game players such as Mane and Keita in their ranks, Senegal can certainly beat anyone on their day.
#4 Experienced coach who knows the formula to last long in an international tournament
The name Aliou Cisse might not immediately ring a bell. But the midfielder who played for Birmingham City and captained Senegal to the quarter-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup is a footballing legend in his country. And in a continent that largely favours importing coaches from Europe, his appointment to the position of manager of the national football team in 2015 was a welcome change.
Having been an international player himself, Cisse knows what it takes to sustain a challenge in an international tournament, having masterminded victories over defending champions France and Sweden in the 2002 World Cup, and reaching the finals of the African Cup of Nations in the same year.
He is a manager who the players love, and are willing to give everything for. Given these factors, Cisse’s influence might just prove to be the difference.
#5 Never won the African Cup of Nations before and will be motivated than ever to bring the trophy home
At times, no motivation is bigger than the motivation to do something no one else has done before, and make history. Over the years, Senegalese sides have been among the best to come out of Africa, but they have little to show for it.
In heartbreaking fashion, then captain and current coach Aliou Cisse missed the decisive penalty in the penalty shootout during the final of the 2002 African Cup of Nations against Cameroon, after the match ended 0-0 at 120 minutes.
However, with a Senegalese side that boasts some of the best talent in recent years, and with a coach that is desperate to redeem himself, it all seems to be lining up for Senegal to make history and lift their first ever AFCON title.