If a first major tournament victory at the Africa Cup of Nations was the perfect start to the year for Senegal, a deep run at the World Cup would be a special end to 2022. You could argue that there have only been two teams from Africa to make an impression at a World Cup out of the last five tournaments, but there is something different about this Senegal side, certainly enough to spark hope that they could make a great leap in Qatar.
If Ghana in 2010 was one side to make a lasting impact on a World Cup this century, Senegal’s 2002 team that shocked champions France and reached the quarter-finals is the other example of what can be achieved, but they are no longer the standout vintage in their own nation. Sadio Mane’s winning penalty in the historic Africa Cup of Nations final shootout victory over Egypt helped see to that. Mane, who also scored the penalty to send Senegal to only their third World Cup, also against Egypt, is the talismanic figure, but Senegal also possess a fine squad.
They return as champions and stronger now following their group stage exit in Russia four years ago, with Edouard Mendy adding to a settled spine that includes Kalidou Koulibaly, Idrissa Gueye and Mane. The Lions have also received a kind group. There will be a straight shootout between Senegal and Netherlands for top spot and if they can claim a result against Louis van Gaal’s side, they may become the first African country since Nigeria in 1998 to top their group. It would help avoid a potential meeting with England in the knockout stages and from there, history and the chance to emulate the 2002 team may await.
For that, Aliou Cisse is the link. Captain 20 years ago in South Korea and Japan, manager in Qatar, as he was in Russia, Cisse has also now led Senegal to their greatest triumph. Although Senegal sometimes struggled to sparkle throughout the Africa Cup of Nations – they required a 97th minute Mane penalty to defeat Zimbabwe, before they drew with Guinea and Malawi in the group stages – this is a team who have been bolstered by discovering what it takes to be winners. In Qatar, that could take them a long way.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Monday 21 November: Senegal vs Netherlands – 16:00
Friday 25 November: Qatar vs Senegal – 13:00
Tuesday 29 November: Ecuador vs Senegal – 15:00
Goalkeepers: Edouard Mendy (Chelsea), Seny Dieng (QPR), Alfred Gomis (Rennes).
Defenders: Youssouf Sabaly (Real Betis), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea), Abdou Diallo (RB Leipzig), Pape Abou Cisse (Olympiacos), Formose Mendy (Amiens), Fode Ballo-Toure (AC Milan), Ismail Jakobs (Monaco).
Midfielders: Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyate (Nottingham Forest), Nampalys Mendy (Leicester), Pape Gueye (Marseille), Pape Sarr (Tottenham), Moustapha Name (Pafos), Mamadou Loum (Reading), Krepin Diatta (Monaco).
Forwards: Sadio Mane (Bayern Munich), Ismaila Sarr (Watford), Bamba Dieng (Marseille), Boulaye Dia (Salernitana), Famara Diedhiou (Alanyaspor), Nicolas Jackson (Villarreal), Iliman Ndiaye (Sheffield United).
Ones to watch
Star – Sadio Mane: ‘Star’ doesn’t quite cover the level of Mane’s impact in Senegal. Already the scorer of the most important penalty in Senegal history, Mane then did it again to send his country through to the World Cup, in the process reaching an ethereal level of superstardom in his homeland that was already boosted by his imperious form at the end of last season. The runner-up in this year’s Ballon d’Or – he could well have been only the second African winner had Liverpool defeated Real Madrid in the Champions League final – Mane has grown significantly since 2018 and developed an outstanding sense of how to deliver in the big moments. As always a delightful player to watch, Qatar could be his stage.
Breakout talent – Boulaye Dia: Senegal will have one of the older squads and starting line-ups in Qatar – the team that began the Africa Cup of Nations final had an average age of 30 – while Aliou Cisse’s side also have an overeliance on Mane for goals. However the 25-year-old striker Dia can help solve both of those potential issues at the World Cup. A scorer in the Champions League semi-finals for Villarreal last season, Dia only has three goals for his country but will likely lead the line for the Lions. If he finds form it will be both a boost to Senegal and Dia’s burgeoning career.
There is huge importance on their opening match against the Netherlands and Senegal cannot afford the slow start that almost saw them eliminated from the Africa Cup of Nations in the group stages if they are to progress as group winners and avoid England in the last 16. The final group fixture against Ecuador could be trickier than it looks, too, especially if Senegal lose to the Dutch in the opener. The Lions certainly have the weapons to cause England problems if they are to meet in the knockouts, but not enough to cause the upset. Defeated in the last 16.