Key analysis: African champions Senegal go in search of global validation

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Key analysis: African champions Senegal go in search of global validation
Key analysis: African champions Senegal go in search of global validation
Key analysis: African champions Senegal go in search of global validation
Profimedia
Twenty years after leading Senegal as captain during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, Aliou Cisse (46) is trying again as coach in Qatar. The coach, with a career as a player in the major European leagues and experience as a coach in the Russian World Cup, arrives with the awareness of having been the architect of the enormous growth of the national team.

They are captained by Kalidou Koulibaly (31), champion of Africa in the recent edition held in Cameroon at the beginning of the year, has confirmed itself as the fastest growing movement in African football.

Senegal, still hurting from their failure to qualify for the knockout rounds in Russia due gaining more yellow cards , redeemed themselves on their own continent by playing in the final of the 2019 African Cup of Nations - losing to Algeria - and imposing themselves in the following edition thanks to the historic lifting of their first major trophy.

Cisse's discrete career as a midfielder in Europe has allowed him to return to his country with a critical and discerning eye, as well as the ability to reflect and reason about a different athletic and tactical preparation than usual.

At the helm of his national team since 2015 - the beginning of his coaching career - he focuses everything on match interpretation.

For him, ball possession is the basis of his team's game, although he does not disdain quick transitions in attack. And that is why, despite Sadio Mane's (30) knee injury, a cheerful face and leader of a united group, he wanted his best striker at all costs.

An adventure that, Cisse aside, sees three players as the cornerstones of the entire expedition.

Three solid pillars

Mane is no ordinary footballer. The Bayern Munich striker is, and has been, the reference point of every team in which he has played. A mobile striker, capable of playing both on the left flank and as a centre forward, he has not only not been affected by the cultural change from Merseyside to Bavaria, but has also quickly integrated into the tactical demands of Julian Nagelsmann, a more experimental coach than Jurgen Klopp.

At the Allianz Arena, the Senegalese striker became part of a different way of playing than the direct style he was part of at Liverpool, and one that probably resembles Cisse's national team style more. Having studied and learned new ways of attacking could be an extra weapon for Mane to put at Senegal's disposal: first, however, we will have to wait for his full physical recovery.

In the 4-3-3 of his national team, the number 10 acts as a left winger, with the task of centralising, well covered by a midfield that is very fluid in its movements.

Senegal's other strengths are in defence, where captain Koulibaly is the pillar of a defensive wall that stands in front of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, who has only recently come to prominence but has immediately proved indispensable.

The former Napoli player, who at Chelsea is suffering a bit too much in the adaptation phase, is the perfect plaeyr to have in the dressing room. The captain's armband has given him even more responsibility, and it is around him that a team has been structured where players from different backgrounds, like languages spoken in the country, mingle. 

Raised in France, but linked to the country of origin to which he travelled every summer as a child, Koulibaly is strongly united with the land of Africa and the Senegalese national team, where Christians and Muslims live a harmonious everyday life without being affected by the different tribal languages that make it up.

Mendy, a year after Koulibaly, was also born France and has been playing for Chelsea for two years thanks to an intuition of Blues legend Petr Cech (40), who had eyeballed him at Rennes, his former team.

After arriving at Stamford Bridge, the Senegal goalkeeper first took away Kepa Arrizabalaga's starting spot between the sticks and then definitively conquered the same position for his national team - he represents an absolute guarantee.

With these two men at the helm, Cisse has built a defence that has conceded just four goals in their last six World Cup qualifying matches.

The penalty shootout triumph against Egypt, during which Mendy saved a shot from the penalty spot, sent them to the World Cup in Qatar.

The attack, however, stands out as the department in which Senegal had the best performance when looking at the World Cup qualifiers. Their average XG per game is 2.23, while those against is 1.12.

In the eight matches played in the last qualifying round, Senegal scored six wins, one draw and only one defeat.

A setback came in the final first leg of the World Cup qualifying play-off against Egypt, then overturned at home thanks to the 1-0 win that led to a penalty shoot-out in which Mane himself was decisive.

Among the Senegalese national team's statistics that stand out the most is the percentage of the number of times Koulibaly and his teammates have gone ahead first: 70%.

It is a figure that demonstrates Senegal's ability to unlock the result even in the most complicated matches.

Thin squad

Senegal's biggest weakness is their bench - the substitutes do not match the standards of the starting XI, nor are they particularly reliable. 

Mane's eventual replacement is the main problem for the coach, who will try hard to have the only truly irreplaceable player available as soon as possible.

He is fundamental to the African national team's game. The scorer of the penalty that sent the Lions to Qatar 2022 is the silver arrow in Cisse's attacking bow, thanks to his ability to turn nothing into something special.

Five goals in the last four games makes Mane so crucial to Senegal. An essential player not only in the game, but especially for his importance as a dressing-room man.

His cheerfulness, which is extremely contagious, makes him a unique element: a leader on the pitch, but also someone who can carry his team off the pitch, together with Koulibaly.

Starting XI (4-3-3)

Edouard Mendy - Youssuf Sabaly, Kalidou Koulibaly, Abdou Diallo, Fode Balo-Toure - Pape Gueye, Cheikhou Kouyate, Gana Gueye -  Ismaila Sarr, Bambia Dieng, Sadio Mane.

Hottest contest

For Cisse, who rarely uses other modules apart from the 4-3-3, it will be important to choose who will be in the midfield that saw Idrissa Gueye lose his starting role in the Premier League last season.

He moved from Paris Saint Germain to Everton, has taken a step backwards, collecting only nine appearances and of these only three in full.

However, he will be the most experienced element in the Senegalese midfield, which will also feature his namesake Pape Gueye, from the Marseille team, and another veteran Cheikhou Kouyate.

Cisse's big bet, on the other hand, is Pape Mata Sarr (20) from Tottenham Hotspur who has hardly seen the field this year, which increases the uncertainty surrounding Senegal's midfield line.

Prediction

In a group where the Netherlands is on paper the selection with the highest quality, Senegal will have to try everything in their opening match against Louis Van Gaal's (71) men.

An eventual success would pave the way for Cisse's team to qualify for the next round.

Senegal's best result at the World Cup was in 2002, when they reached the quarter-finals with Cisse as captain. On that occasion, too, a victory in the first match against one of the strongest teams, reigning champions France, was required.

Senegal arrive in Qatar with the awareness of their own qualities in a group with the Netherlands, Qatar and Ecuador.

Passage to the next round is a possible goal, either in first or second place, although the surprising Ecuador, who have performed well in the qualifiers, and hosts Qatar, may pose a threat.

Whatever happens, Senegal have the opportunity to go as far as their 2002 counterparts, and potentially spring more of a surprise at the tournament goes on.