Senegal’s victory over Ecuador ensured that the Teranga Lions have reached the knockout stages of a World Cup for the second time after their stunning debut appearance in 2002.
The coach Aliou Cissé was captain of the team that made history with their run to the quarter-finals 20 years ago and will fancy his chances of matching that achievement against England in the last 16 despite the absence of his injured talisman Sadio Mané and the suspended midfielder Idrissa Gueye. Bristling with self-belief after a historic first Africa Cup of Nations triumph in February, Senegal will provide England with their stiffest test so far in Qatar.
This is the first time the countries have met at senior level, but Cissé was the assistant coach of the Senegal side that drew 1-1 with Great Britain at Wembley during the group stages of the 2012 Olympic Games. England have never been beaten by African opposition in 20 previous matches, although this will be the first time since Bobby Robson’s side defeated Cameroon 3-2 after extra-time in a thrilling quarter-final at Italia 90 that they have faced an African country in the knockout stages.
There have been three 0-0 draws in group stages at World Cups, against Morocco in 1986, Nigeria in 2002 and Algeria in 2010. With a place in the last eight on the line this time, what can England expect from Cissé and co on Sunday evening?
Strengths After a disappointing open defeat by the Netherlands, Senegal bounced back in style against Qatar and showed real resilience in the latter stages of their crucial game against Ecuador. The captain Kalidou Koulibaly’s performance epitomised the team spirit Cissé has helped to create, with the Chelsea defender leading by example as he scored the vital winning goal. He and Abdou Diallo – who is on loan at RB Leipzig from Paris Saint-Germain this season – form a strong partnership at the back, and Ismaïla Sarr, Boulaye Dia and Iliman Ndiaye have emerged as the preferred front three and provide a real goalscoring threat in Mané’s absence.
Weaknesses The midfield is usually a massive strength but there will be concerns over who can replace Everton’s Gueye. In the expected continued absence of the former captain Cheikhou Kouyaté with a hamstring injury, Pape Matar Sarr – the 20-year-old yet to play a minute for Tottenham this season despite being named on the bench six times – could be handed an opportunity. The left-back Ismail Jakobs, cleared to play hours before the first game after issues over his switch of allegiance from Germany, has provided more balance to the defence but the right-back Youssouf Sabaly can sometimes be the weak link.
Tactics Cissé has stuck rigidly to 4-3-3 for the most part, although Gueye was employed as a No 10 against Ecuador with Pathé Ciss and Pape Gueye in holding midfield roles. Senegal are likely to drop deeper against England, soak up pressure and attempt to hit on the break, with Ndiaye’s and Sarr’s trickery on either flank a key part of the gameplan. Dia, who is on loan at the Italian side Salernitana from Villarreal, is a physical presence in attack who likes to link up with the midfield.
Danger men Sarr has shown glimpses of his ability at Watford since arriving from Rennes in 2019 for a club record £30m but has been an integral part of Senegal’s team for several years. The 24-year-old has 51 caps and scored his 11th goal against Ecuador with a perfectly executed ‘no-look’ penalty after being fouled to halt a brilliant run. Ndiaye, the Sheffield United forward who only made his debut in June, had seemed determined to take the spot-kick before being overruled by Cissé but that was an indication of the confidence Ndiaye has been playing with since being introduced into the side. Both players from Championship clubs will be desperate to make a big impression against England.
Coach The second African coach to have guided a team to the knockout stages of a World Cup after Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi in 2014, Cissé is developing a reputation as a master tactician with a knack for making the right calls. The 46-year-old’s status as an icon in Senegal was cemented by the penalty shootout victory over Egypt at Afcon and the man born in Casamance who moved to France as a nine-year-old is the driving force behind his country’s success. Cissé played for Birmingham and Portsmouth in the Premier League and began coaching as an assistant for the lower-league side Louhans-Cuiseaux in France before completing his licence at Clairefontaine, the home of French football. He has never managed a club but spent more than three years with Senegal’s Under-23s before stepping up in 2015.
Momentum It seemed all hopes that this team could emulate the class of 2002 had gone up in smoke after Mané was ruled out. But Cissé has galvanised his players and made up for the disappointment of being cruelly eliminated from the last World Cup at the group stage because of their inferior disciplinary record to Japan’s. Senegal will believe that anything is possible, especially as Koulibaly’s winnner on Tuesday came less than three minutes after Ecuador’s equaliser appeared to have dashed their chances. “It is now a win or lose situation – there are no second chances,” Cissé said. “If you win, you go through, if you lose, you go home.”