How do you replace Sadio Mane? The hard truth is that it is impossible to. Senegal’s talisman won’t be at the World Cup, and that blow sees them without a single-handed matchwinner and a player that can be considered elite, or at least not far off despite the recent drop-off.
He has had a glorious year at international level. It was Mane who scored their penalty kick to crown them African champions, and he was to repeat the same act a couple of weeks later to take them to the World Cup.
At AFCON 2021 Mane was the most fouled player (28 fouls against), and no player attempted more through balls (14). He was Senegal’s most potent attacking threat, and with the height in their ranks those fouls were sometimes set-pieces which the Teranga Lions could exploit.
Our intention is not to scare you, dear reader, but the void is huge. In fact, Aliou Cisse will need to perform quickfire surgery down the whole left side – with little room for error – as left Saliou Ciss also misses out.
The left back’s inaction since the summer, after leaving Nancy, has made Cisse show his ruthless side, stating that there are minimum standards that need to be met for players to be selected for the Senegal national team. Ciss and Mane’s link up play, at its best, was a menace to even the most stubborn of defences in Africa.
Despite the big blows, Senegal will be plotting to cement their place in World Cup history. The core of their team has now hit 30. They’re not down and out, as they showed earlier at AFCON this year, and they’ll be looking to make an impact at the World Cup while still in and within their peak years.
What constitutes the next layer of success for this generation? Most certainly getting out of the groups – and going beyond that. They will have to do it without Mane.
Kalidou Koulibaly – The captain leads from the back and is a crucial part of a solid backline, with the quicker Abdou Diallo complementing his lack of pace. They will certainly need commanding performances from Koulibaly, and those around him, if they are to compete against the elite teams.
Aliou Cisse – Seven years at the helm makes him, by some distance, the longest serving coach of the African teams in Qatar. The former Senegal captain commands the respect of the players, which explains why the federation have stuck with him during the lows. There is a perception he isn’t tactically savvy, and, with no Mane and a need to change gears, Qatar will be a massive test of his tactical acumen.
The big unknown unknown is how Senegal will perform without Mane when it matters most. Whichever way you look at it, it has lowered their chances. However, as reigning African champions the expectations won’t be filtered down, and any meek exit will be seen as a massive disappointment. Given the challenges, a Round of 16 exit will be just about satisfactory, but – quietly – they will be aiming to do more.