On the sixth day of the World Cup, the best of a continent will probably be lost. Senegal against Qatar pits the African Cup of Nations winners against the Asian Cup champions. The loser may be eliminated with a game to go and less than a week of the tournament played. The possibility is that officially the best sides in two huge confederations will not figure in the World Cup’s last 16.
“It is two teams up against a wall,” Senegal manager Aliou Cisse said. “We are talking about two champions, the Asian champions and the African champions, and you can imagine the importance. If you lose your opening game, you are up against a brick wall. However, we do have experience under our belts and we have played other difficult games under the same level of stress and intensity. We know we need to knuckle down and pull everything together to pull out that win.”
Suffer a setback and Senegal’s seminal 2022 would end in anti-climax. Two decades ago, Cisse captained the greatest Senegal side of all but even they never became champions of Africa. A belated first title came in February. March brought qualification for the World Cup, also at Egypt’s expense, also on penalties. After losing to the Netherlands on Monday, Senegal will again have to do it the hard way.
Cisse’s team are accustomed to grinding out wins, but another part of the equation is unfamiliar. “Since I have been here we have always got off to a flying start, in all the competitions we have always won our first game,” said Cisse. Yet there was a caveat. “In Russia we won our opener and then went crashing out.” That 2-1 victory over Poland in 2018 seemed to position Senegal to qualify; so did a draw with Japan until defeat to Colombia meant that, cruelly, Senegal went out on fair play points. They got two bookings against the Netherlands, which might seem an irrelevant detail but for their history.
Cisse is the lone constant of Senegal’s three World Cups. He was in the midfield for their finest start of all, the 2002 win over France which helped propel the unheralded Africans to the quarter-finals. Now they need to take their pursuit of a last-16 place down to Tuesday’s clash with Ecuador.
They face Qatar with their situations identical in one respect, very different in another. Both teams lost 2-0 but whereas the hosts were dreadful against Ecuador, Senegal got within a few minutes of a point against Holland. “We know that we didn’t play poorly,” Cisse said. “We were able to give one of the best teams in the world a run for their money.”
The difference between a draw and a defeat lay in two mistakes by Edouard Mendy. Rewind to the start of the year and the Chelsea player won Fifa’s award as the outstanding goalkeeper for 2021, then Afcon and then the Club World Cup. His star has waned since then, with Mendy displaced by Kepa Arrizabalaga at club level and struggling for his country in Doha.
He nevertheless received a resounding endorsement from Cisse. “Edouard’s qualities speak for themselves,” the manager said. “I don’t think anyone is doubting it. He has highs and lows but he has my full trust, my blind trust and he will be on the pitch.”
Senegal’s problems have come in both penalty boxes. They failed to score against the Dutch after the crippling blow of losing Sadio Mane, the runner-up in the Ballon d’Or, the taker of the winning penalty in both shootouts against Egypt and their record scorer. A forward line of Boulaye Dia, Ismaila Sarr and Krepin Diatta failed to compensate for Mane’s absence against Holland and goals have been in short supply for African sides this World Cup.
“We need to be aggressive to find the back of the net,” Cisse said. “Our forwards are able to do that. They have shown that before, they know what I am expecting and the Senegalese population is expecting as well.”
He may have been burdening his players with pressure, but it seemed more of a rallying cry. “I can understand why people have doubts but all the players in our squad want to rewrite history for our Senegalese fans,” he added. “It will be their day tomorrow and we are going to give them the show they deserve. We have our backs up against the wall but we are the Lions of Teranga and we are trying to get six points out of six. The behaviour and mentality tomorrow will be that of warriors.”