Senegal, with more than just Mané, has high World Cup hopes
Senegal has way more than just Sadio Mané.
Armed with players from across Europe’s top leagues, the current Senegal team is, for many, the best from Africa ever to go to a World Cup. That has raised hopes that Senegal can provide the continent with its first World Cup semifinalist.
Mané is clearly the biggest star and leads from the front, but goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, defender Kalidou Koulibaly, midfielders Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté, and forward Ismaila Sarr show Senegal has high quality throughout and goes to Qatar having already partly delivered on its promise by winning its first African Cup of Nations title in February.
The African champions will give everyone a better idea of where it sits in world soccer and if it has the potential to make history when it plays the Netherlands in its opening game at the World Cup. It also faces host Qatar and Ecuador in Group A.
Senegal finally broke its big tournament curse by winning this year’s African Cup in Cameroon.
Senegal had been burdened with the tag of being the best team never to win an African Cup before Mané scored the title-winning penalty in a shootout to beat Egypt.
Decades of underachievement ended and the timing couldn’t have been better with the World Cup around the corner, which will be Senegal’s third appearance. Although Senegal didn’t play silky soccer at the African Cup, the team held its nerve and Mané was in-form, providing a huge confidence boost for coach Aliou Cissé and his squad.
Mendy and Koulibaly might be as important for Senegal as Mané.
The Chelsea teammates are among the best in the world in their positions and give Senegal the kind of solidity it will need at the World Cup, where its defense will be given far sterner tests than at the African Cup.
Senegal has lost right back Bouna Sarr for the World Cup because of injury but has enough depth for that not to be a major problem.
THE MAIN MAN
At 30 years old, Mané is probably at his peak.
But Africa’s best player of his generation is facing his last chance to make a big impact at the World Cup. He’s made a smooth transition from the Premier League to the Bundesliga and is already scoring regularly for Bayern Munich.
Senegal has a variety of options up front to support Mané, including the speedy Ismaila Sarr, Boulaye Dia and the 6-foot-4 Famara Diédhiou. Finding the combination that brings out the best in Mané will be crucial to Senegal’s hopes of going far in Qatar.
MEMORIES OF 2002
Senegal’s best World Cup performance was its debut in 2002, when it beat defending champion France in one of the tournament’s great upsets and became only the second African team after Cameroon in 1990 to reach the quarterfinals.
This Senegal team has a living reminder of the country’s top sporting moment in Cissé, the current coach who captained that 2002 World Cup squad.
Cissé has been in charge since 2015, a rare example of an international coach being given an extended period of time to build. He repaid that faith by finally winning the African title this year, something he couldn’t do as captain.
The 2002 World Cup players were often referred to as Senegal’s golden generation but the squad Cissé coaches 20 years later is by all accounts better, it just needs to show it.
Associated Press writer Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
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