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Afcon 2021: Even Sadio Mane may not be able to inspire Senegal to the title

4:02 PM IST 27/01/22
Sadio Mane of Senegal 2021.
Despite being pre-tournament favourites, the Lions of Teranga have failed to sparkle at the finals in Cameroon

Senegal are not particularly good, are they?

Observers may scoff at that suggestion but it is not churlish to label Aliou Cisse’s team average after four fixtures at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations.

In a sense, you are wont to cut the West African nation some slack owing to their far from ideal preparation owing to a coronavirus outbreak before the start of the tournament. No less than 11 absences for their opening clash with Zimbabwe meant Cisse could name only six players on the bench, including one goalkeeper—Alioune Badara Faty.

It took a rather controversial 97th-minute Sadio Mane penalty to secure maximum points against the Warriors, a goal that turned out to be hugely important for the two-time Afcon runners-up.

That Mane spot-kick was the only time Senegal beat the opposing team’s goalkeeper at the group stage. They got little joy in open play, neither was there any fortune from dead-ball situations.

If Cisse’s team were fashioning opportunities with any regularity and missing them, it would be easy to put their issues down to ill fortune or quality goalkeeping from their opponents between the sticks.

What onlookers have had to witness from the Lions of Teranga, though, has been an eyesore.

They struggle to progress with the ball from deeper areas into the attacking third, their combination play in that area appears haphazard and quality chances have been few and far between.

Until Mane’s second-half strike in the eventual 2-0 Round of 16 victory over Cape Verde, Senegal had racked up 20 shots but only hit the target five times. Quality chances were at a premium against Guinea and Malawi, with the majority of their opportunities coming from set-pieces, evidenced by their final group game.

Their apparent struggles led to Cisse putting the team’s issues down to an absence of final-third efficiency.

“We have lacked efficiency at the front but we want to ensure we have a different strategy going into the next round of matches as we hope for more goals,” the Senegal boss stated after their goalless encounter with Malawi.

“I said from the word go that we should be humble as a team and even though many people expect us to win by big margins we have played formidable teams and the most important fact is that we have qualified as the top team in the group.”

While his side did get more goals in Tuesday’s win over Cape Verde, the 2-0 result did not tell the full story. If anything, it utterly magnified the Lions’ all-round issues.

Admittedly, things could have gone smoother had Mane’s first-minute effort not come off the woodwork. Senegal may have gone on to dominate by showing the best version of themselves en route to a convincing victory.

However, the game went differently. Cisse’s team failed to build on their bright start and laboured as the game wore on. In truth, the average observer would have rather watched paint dry than sit through what was another humdrum Senegal showing.

Despite the minnows playing 36 minutes with 10 men, following Patrick Andrade’s 21st-minute dismissal, and having to make do with nine for the final half-hour after goalkeeper Vozinha saw red, the Lions of Teranga could not control proceedings.

In truth, Cape Verde had appeared energised in the closing stages with the favourites lacking the necessary composure to see things out.

Ahmadou Bamba Dieng’s goal in second-half stoppage came about from a two-v-one counter-attack, indicating the Blue Sharks were in the ascendancy at the time. It was also Senegal’s first open-play goal at the finals.

Heading into their quarter-final clash with Equatorial Guinea, Cisse’s team still broadly retain a bugbear from the 2019 competition—an overreliance on Mane to be decisive.

The Liverpool star was the only player to score more than once in that tournament and is, so far, the sole contributor of more than one goal at the ongoing finals.

An absence of other match-winners may be to their undoing, despite a hitherto watertight defence that is yet to concede a goal in 360 minutes of football in Cameroon.

Regardless of their astounding flaws and dependability on Mane, Africa’s top-ranked team have soldiered on and enter the last eight clash with Equatorial Guinea as heavy favourites to secure a semi-final berth.

If they end up securing their maiden Afcon title playing this way, it would be a mystery.