World Cup 2018: Senegal - The dark horses of the tournament?
Following a victory over the much-favoured Poland team in their first match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup coupled with the unexpected defeat of Colombia at the hands of Japan have put Senegal in the driving seat in Group H, knowing that a victory against Japan will almost secure their entry in the next round of the multinational football tournament in their second ever appearance.
Senegal first qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the year 2002. They were one of the biggest surprises of the tournament and started their campaign by registering a victory over a highly talented defending World Cup champions - the French team (consisting players like Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane etc)
They followed this up with two successive draws against Denmark and Uruguay and finished their group in the 2nd spot, just 2 points below Denmark.
They continued their wonderful form in the round of 16 by winning against the Henrik Larsson-led Swedish side courtesy of a Henri Camara golden goal after the match had ended 1-1 after normal time.
It was this same golden goal rule that finally ended the dream run of the 2002 Senegal squad. After finishing 0-0 in regular time against Turkey in the quarter-finals, a 94th-minute İlhan Mansız golden goal settled the match in Turkey’s favour thus depriving Senegal a chance of being the first African nation to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup.
2018 is the second time that Senegal has qualified for this event in their history
The 23-man Senegal squad is coached by former player and captain of 2002 Senegal World Cup squad Aliou Cisse and is led by West Ham midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate. 22 of the 23 members of the squad ply their trade in Europe with goalkeeper Khadim Ndiaye being the only player playing outside of Europe in this squad.
Goalkeepers: Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Alfred Gomis (SPAL), Khadim Ndiaye (Horoya).
Defenders: Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), Adama Mbengue (SM Caen), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Kara Mbodii (RSC Anderlecht), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Salif Sane (Hannover), Moussa Wague (Eupen).
Midfielders: Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham United), Alfred N'diaye (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City), Cheikh N'doye (Birmingham City), Ismaila Sarr (Rennes).
Forwards: Keita Balde (Monaco), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City), Moussa Konate (Amiens), Sadio Mane (Liverpool, England), M'Baye Niang (Torino), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Moussa Sow (Bursaspor).
3 Key Players for Senegal
It was the quick thinking and electrifying pace of the 23-year old that helped Senegal score the second and decisive goal against Poland after a terrible back pass from Grzegorz Krychowiak.
The 23-year old French-born forward has not been in the best of form for his club Torino, where he plays on loan from AC Milan, registering just a mere 4 goals and 1 assist in 26 league appearance for the Turin based side.
The 6ft-tall lad, whose playing style has drawn a comparison to Italian forward Mario Balotelli, recently switched allegiance to Senegal and played his first ever match on October 2017. Niang, so far, has picked up 8 caps and his only goal for Senegal came in the match against Poland.
Senegal will be relying on the young man’s pace and strength to help them score more goals like the one against Poland.
Robert Lewandoski, one of the most feared strikers in World Football was restricted to just 34 touches and 1 shot on target (that too a direct freekick and not from open play). These figures provide you with an insight into how well the Senegalese defence was marshalled by Napoli defender, Kalidou Koulibaly.
The French-born defender came into this World Cup on the back of a stellar season with Napoli where they almost snatched the Seria A title from Juventus. The 27-year old averaged 2.3 tackles, 1.3 interceptions and 3.3 clearances per 90 minutes from his 35-league appearance for Napoli this season.
The 27-year old 6ft 5inch tall defender has picked up 27 caps for his country but is yet to score a goal for them. The Lions of Teranga will be banking upon their leading defender to continue his fine form with the national team and help marshal their defensive line effectively.
The Senegalese forward played a very important part in the build-up to Senegal’s first goal against Poland as it was his pass that was given to Idrissa Gueye whose shot was deflected into his own net by Polish player Thiago Cionek.
The forward ended the match with a pass accuracy of 83% with 1 shot, 2 key passes and 52 touches.
The mercurial 26-year-old Premier League star will be looking to continue his incredible club form for Liverpool to the national team. The lightning-quick forward has registered 10 goals and 7 assists in 29 Premier League matches for Liverpool and a further 10 goals and 1 assist for Liverpool in their road to the UEFA Champions League Final.
The 5ft 8inch 26-year old winger has picked up 53 caps for his country, bringing him level with the 13th most capped player in Senegalese football history and has scored 14 goals for the home nation making him the 7th highest goal scorer for his country.
He is the go-to man of the Senegal team who can provide those breath-taking moments of brilliance and goals
Senegal will be hoping for the winger to produce goals of breathtaking nature from Mane like his goals in the Liverpool shirt and make the left wing his very own whenever he gets on the field.
Potential opponents in the round of 16
A victory in their next match against Japan, coupled with a draw between Colombia and Poland will assure Senegal a spot in the round of 16 of the World Cup for the second time in their second ever attempt.
The Group winners of Group H will face against the second-placed finishers of Group G and the winners of Group G will face against second-placed finishers of Group H. In both situations, Senegal will play their round of 16 matches against either Belgium or England depending on the position at which Senegal finishes within their group.
We may well not see the prediction of the Brazilian legend Pele (he said an African team would win the World Cup before the year 2000) coming true but chances of watching an African team play in the World Cup Semi-finals is quite high if Senegal can continue their fine form.