Path to the final
Pre-tournament it was clear Senegal were in the easier half of the draw and, bar any of the top teams having a disaster, they would be blessed with what, on paper, looked like a kind path to the final.
That is exactly what happened. After finishing top of their group Aliou Cisse’s side faced Cape Verde in the Round of 16, Equatorial Guinea in the quarter final and Burkina Faso in the semis. All more than decent teams but nowhere near as daunting as facing the traditional cream of African football.
As Africa’s highest rank team In the FIFA rankings, all Senegal needed to do was show the consistency they had displayed over the last five years. In the end, they dispatched them professionally, setting up a final with Egypt in a match which was always going to be their first real test, given how strong the other half of the draw was.
A mean defence
The absences of the likes of Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly in the first two matches was a big blow, not to mention Saliou Ciss missing their tournament opener against Zimbabwe. The trio are important players in their own way, Mendy and Kouliably in their undisputable quality and Ciss when it comes to his chance creation from left back.
Missing those players may have affected other sides but Senegal were generally fine in their absence. Koulibaly’s partner Abdou Diallo was outstanding throughout the tournament, and the dissatisfaction with Senegal’s performances never, at any point, centred around the defence.
From the beginning of the tournament to the end Senegal were solid at the back. In fact, they didn’t concede a goal until they met Equatorial Guinea in the quarter final, and they never went behind at any point in their seven games. This AFCON, with the challenge of Covid, has been one where squad strength has come to the fore more than ever, and Senegal illustrated the quality in their reserves, when it came to covering gaps.
Second half surges
The numbers reveal Senegal executed when they needed to, and when it mattered most. Eight out of the nine goals they scored at AFCON were scored in the second half. They registered just one goal in the group stages, with the rest coming in the knockout stages.
Seven out of eight of their goals in the knockout stages were scored after the hour mark. In that sense Senegal, despite the criticism they faced earlier on in the tournament, came good in the half of the tournament where you need to win games and where underperformances can be fatal.
Where fans of the Teranga Lions may have at times panicked, Aliou Cisse oozed calmness throughout from the touchline. It’s no wonder, then, that his team held their nerve against teams they should be beating with a third of the match left to wrap things up.
Not losing on their bad days
Senegal made hard work of what looked like a straightforward group. They beat Zimbabwe in their opening game thanks to an injury time penalty by Mane, before draws against Guinea and Malawi. The most important thing is they didn’t lose on their bad days. In their defence, the opening two games were played in the humidity of the afternoon kick offs, conditions which no team at the tournament found easy to play in.
As Algeria and Ghana showed, exiting in the group stages is a real possibility over the course of three games where a collection of multiple factors can affect your performance. Senegal did well to stumble out of the group stages and not lose games where perhaps the critics went overboard on their analysis, considering the conditions. For them, the real tournament started in the Round of 16.
We could have easily been writing about where it all went wrong for Senegal. That is the nature of penalties. On this occasion Senegal got the rub of luck they that evaded them in 2002. This was in a battle with a well-drilled, never-say-die Egypt team that had kept some of the best teams at bay.
This expanded format now makes penalties in the knockouts, at least on one occasion, highly probable. Algeria needed them in 2019 in the quarter finals versus Ivory Coast and this year it was Senegal’s turn. They got the luck they needed and will now be remembered as the victors.