Two years ago, it was hard to see where Senegalese football was heading next. It was clear that there was no dearth of attacking talent, but after being battered in their tie with Ivory Coast, their place among Africa’s elite was questionable. Not only that, but the riots that left the second leg of the tie abandoned led to a one-year ban from playing at home from CAF. Despite topping their World Cup group, they again lost to Ivory Coast in the final play-off.
Nonetheless, the progress made since the January 2013 appointment of Alain Giresse, whose past credits include turning around the fortunes of Gabon and Mali, is palpable. As you would expect from the vastly-experienced former France international, this is now a well-drilled, difficult-to-beat team; in their qualifying group, they conceded only one goal, a last-minute winner for Tunisia which ultimately cost them the group win. They qualified in second place, but with the highest number of points for a group runner-up. Two wins over Egypt demonstrate the different trajectories of the two nations in recent years.
The knock-on effect is that despite the abundance of quality strikers, including Papiss Cissé, Moussa Sow, Dame N’Doye, Mame Biram Biouf and Diafra Sakho, they only scored eight goals in those six qualifiers, five of which came against group whipping boys Botswana. This won’t be a pretty side to watch, but it’s the most effective Senegal team in a generation. Are they back amongst the elite? It’s hard to tell, but we’re going to find out in a group which also includes three other fancied contenders.
Giresse teams are notoriously tough to beat, and that is borne out by Senegal’s record in competitive matches under him; six wins, four draws, two defeats. The only teams to have beaten them are Ivory Coast, once one of the strongest sides in Africa, and Tunisia, currently one of the strongest sides in Africa. At the heart of the team is three defensively-minded midfielders: Mohamed Diamé of Hull City, Lille’s Idrissa Gueye, and West Ham’s Cheikhou Kouyate, with Alfred N’Diaye, formerly of Sunderland, and Levante’s Papakouli Diop as the current back-ups. The big question is whether or not attackers like N’Doye and Diouf are good enough to create their own chances.
Attacking depth – Senegal have always been strong in the attacking department since the days of El-Hadji Diouf and Henri Camara, but at the moment they have the most continental-class attacking options of any African side. Of late, they have favoured Mame Diouf through the middle supported by Sadio Mané and N’Doye. It says a lot that their two most-capped strikers, Cissé and Sow, aren’t currently first choice and that Demba Ba failed to get into the squad altogether, mainly due to the rise of Diafra Sakho, although the West Ham striker has now been ruled out. The result is injuries in this area shouldn’t be a major problem, but it does mean they inevitably can’t include some of their most talented players in their XI.
Lack of creativity – The biggest hole in the squad is that they lack a continental-class playmaker to create chances for their talented strikers. Giresse’s style leans more to grinding out results, especially against Africa’s better sides. Playing with three holding midfielders places a lot of pressure on the in-form N’Doye and Diamé, of whom much will be expected, to get forward and cause problems as he often does in the Premier League; this was enough in qualifying against Egypt and Botswana, but what about against three mean defences in the Cup of Nations? There’s little point in having great strikers if they are feeding on scraps.
Mohamed Diamé – Alain Giresse’s Mali side was built around the considerable ability of Seydou Keita, who acted as the team’s leader and main creative force, as well as popping up with key goals once in a while. And though Kingston-upon-Hull may be decidedly less glamorous than Barcelona, Diamé will essentially take on the same role in Giresse’s Senegal, knitting everything together and being relied upon to pull rabbits out of hats at key moments.
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Idrissa Gueye – While Diamé may be the more familiar name to Premier League fans, 25-year-old Gueye is actually been the most consistent presence in the Senegal midfield throughout qualifying. A regular in the Lille side, he is rumoured to have caught the attention of Arsenal, who desperately need a holding midfielder; a good Cup of Nations may put him on a few English shopping lists.
Alain Giresse – The little Frenchman’s record in tournaments is one hit, one miss: his Gabon side failed to progress beyond the group stage in 2010, but his Mali team made the semi-finals in 2012, narrowly losing out to Ivory Coast, although they had been pretty fortunate with their draw. He has quickly established himself as one of the best coaches working in Africa today.
Group stage exit – Unlikely to make it out of this tough group, but if they somehow did, knockout football will suit their style.