Group H promises to be one of the tightest at the World Cup, as Senegal face off against Colombia, Japan, and Poland.
The Senegalese will attend only their second World Cup, with their first appearance coming in 2002, where they reached the quarter-final stage.
Senegalese football peaked in the early 2000s. Besides their quarter-final in Japan and South Korea, they finished runners-up in the African Cup of Nations, their best performance in the competition.
Back then, the now legendary likes of El Hadji Diouf and Henri Camara were among the players for the Lions of Teranga. Nowadays, they have a stronger team on paper. Sadio Mane and Keita Balde pose the attacking threat while Napoli centre back Kalidou Koulibaly is among the most sought-after defenders in European football.
Senegal will definitely fancy their chances of qualifying from this group and are more than capable of doing so.
Route to Russia
Group D of the African qualifiers to the 2018 World Cup was a formality for the Senegalese. They conceded only three goals in their six matches, finishing first above Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, and South Africa.
The only complication in their route to Russia was their away match in South Africa which had to be replayed due to the referee being convicted of match-fixing. Senegal lost the initial tie in controversial circumstances after a penalty was awarded against Koulibaly for handball despite the ball hitting his knee.
In the replay, Senegal strolled to a 2-0 victory and showed why they were always favourites to qualify from the group.
Only Diafra Sakho scored more than one goal in the qualifiers, reaching just two, despite the Senegalese bagging ten in total.
In recent matches, manager Aliou Cisse, who was part of Senegal’s last World Cup squad, has been rotating his goalkeeper. Abdoulaye Diallo, of Rennes, has been lost his place at club level and so his national position has come under threat.
Alfred Gomis of SPAL in Italy and Khadim N’Diaye who plys his trade in Guinea are his competition and it was the latter who featured in the majority of the qualification games, so he and Diallo are likely to fight it out for the starting spot.
The Senegalese midfield is all England-based, barring the promising youngster Ismaila Sarr who plays in France. In attack, they have several recognisable names, not least the Liverpool winger Sadio Mane.
Cisse has been trialling new formations recently and rarely sticks to one method. 4-3-3 is the best formation to enable important players to take up their favoured roles, though. Even then, many players are forced into less conventional positions, such as Molla Wague who finds himself at right back in the national team.
Key Player: Kalidou Koulibaly
Kalidou Koulibaly is the key man in this Senegal squad. His teammates are talented going forwards: the likes of Sadio Mane and Diafra Sakho will create chances, but he is head and shoulders above his defensive compatriots and a lot of responsibility will fall his way.
Koulibaly has been a rock at the back for Napoli this season. Not only did he marshal the joint second best defence in Serie A, but he scored vital goals for the team, memorably scoring a 90th minute winner against Juventus to keep the Scudetto dream alive before inevitability took over and Juventus secured the title for the seventh year running.
If one of Senegal’s forwards fails to make an impact, there is plenty more talent who can step up to the plate. Koulibaly does not have the luxury of elite defenders playing alongside him. It will be down to him to keep the likes of Radamel Falcao and Robert Lewandowski at bay.
Senegal’s most important match is arguably their first. On 19th June they face Poland at the Otkritie Arena. Poland are second-favourites for the group and Senegal will need at least a point if they want to progress. Lewandowski, as ever, will be the danger man for the Poles.
Next, they play against Japan on 24th June. Japan are the weakest team in the group, but that says more about the strength of the group than anything else. Senegal will have to be at their best to beat Japan and cannot take anything for granted.
On 28th June, their final group stage fixture is against Colombia. Seen by many as a dark horse for the tournament, Colombia will be tough to beat. James Rodriguez has reignited his career in Munich and Falcao is back to his best in Monaco. If the Lions of Teranga can take anything away from this game, they will be pleased.
Prediction: Last 16
Although Senegal are good enough to qualify from this group, they will probably not win it. Their best chances lie in beating Poland to second place and qualifying as runners-up, such is Colombia’s strength.
This is arguably Senegal’s strongest squad in their entire history and I’m backing them to qualify second in their group. This will pit them against either England or Belgium, should group G go as predicted. Either of these sides should be able to eliminate Senegal, but qualifying from their group will still be a great event for the African nation.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group B in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.