Defence may be weak link in otherwise strong Senegal spine
Don’t let their qualification record of just one goal conceded fool you; Senegal’s defensive options are far, far less illustrious than their big names in attack.
Reaching the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations finals from a pool that also contained past winners Tunisia and Egypt is no mean feat, though. This achievement is somewhat tempered, however, by a distinct lack of teeth the Pharaohs have shown in sport since the Arab Spring.
The Lions of Teranga haven’t exactly roared at major tournaments since their brilliant 2002 showings. Only missing out on the African crown by losing a penalty shoot-out to Cameroon in Mali, they then went on to make a sensational run to the World Cup last eight when Far East duo Japan and South Korea co-hosted.
Having kept things quite tight in that run to the AFCON final, Senegal opened up on the global stage, recording a memorable 3-3 draw against Uruguay after shocking then world champions France in their group.
Surviving a late comeback inspired by Diego Forlan and Alvaro Recoba, they edged last 16 opponents Sweden thanks to a Henri Camara golden goal only to fall victim one themselves in the quarter-finals at the hands of Turkey.
That is all history, but the blueprint of such success is what anyone who plays for or coaches the Lions of Teranga is expected to emulate. Doing so with a defence largely made up of second-tier French-based footballers is a tall order.
Head coach Alain Gerisse will happily have Bordeaux skipper Ludovic Lamine Sane back from a knee injury for the Cup of Nations, though. It might also be the time to give highly-rated uncapped Inter Milan full back Ibrahima Mbaye some exposure, though Rennes player Cheikh M’Bengue has made the left-sided defensive berth his own.
Under French coach Gerisse, who was part of the ‘magic square’ of the Michel Platini era as a player in the 1980’s, Senegal have switched between a 3-5-2 and 4-5-1/4-3-3 tactical setup.
It is in midfield and forward areas where Premier League names past and present are plentiful among Lions ranks. With Hull City summer signing Mohamed Diame (his third different English top-flight team) and ex-West Ham teammate Cheikhou Kouyate in the engine room, they serve as the perfect deeper-lying presence to allow the attack to go out and press.
There’s also plenty of backup in central midfield with Spain-based duo Papakouli Diop (Levante) and ex-Sunderland player Alfred N’Diaye (now Real Betis) joining Hannover’s Salif Sane, Idrissa Gueye (Lille) and Stephane Badji (Brann).
Such are the embarrassment of riches in attack, Gerisse is going to have to disappoint someone. Bordeaux winger Henri Savet and Sion striker Moussa Konate, who you may remember being prolific at the London Olympics, look like being the names omitted, but there is plenty of firepower for Senegal.
Newcastle United number nine Papiss Cisse, Stoke City’s former Manchester United forward Mame Biram Diouf, Southampton wideman Sadio Mane and West Ham attacker Diafra Sakho are all getting regular Premier League football.
This fearsome foursome are supplemented by Turkish Super Lig pair Demba Ba (once of Chelsea and Newcastle, now Besiktas) and Moussa Sow (Fenerbahce), plus Lokomotiv Moscow frontman Dame N’Doye.
For all this awesome attacking strength in depth, a tasty-looking Cup of Nation group, which also contains Algeria, Ghana and South Africa, will form an acid test. The Lions cannot afford to be tame in this perilous pool.
Gerisse isn’t the only one with a star-studded frontline, though, and Senegal’s final group game against the Desert Foxes looks like being an instant classic. Fans and punters need to keep a close eye on what happens here in Equatorial Guinea.