If there’s anyone capable of producing a World Cup run akin to that of 2002, it’s Aliou Cisse, current Senegal manager and captain of the famous side that reached the quarter-finals 16 years ago.
Just as “all the gods” were with them in 2002, Africa was with them in their opening game win over Poland, a triumph for “the whole African continent.”
In shocking the European heavyweights in a 2-1 victory, Senegal became the first African nation to win at the 2018 World Cup, with “the whole of Africa… supporting” them.
Memories were invoked, certainly, but there are distinctions.
France and Senegal have a history. It wasn’t just a victory on the pitch, but a triumph of the colonised against the colonisers, with the French having invaded Senegal in the mid-15th Century and imposing their rule until 1960.
“Things are different,” Cisse told the Independent, “but this was just as important.”
The Senegalese system
Just as Bruno Metsu’s plan in 2002 was to utilise the speed and athleticism of forwards El Hadji Diouf and Khalilou Fadiga to break at speed – such was their strength on the counter-attack – Cisse has set his side up similarly.
Deployed in a 4-4-2 formation against Poland, Cisse used Liverpool forward Sadio Mane on the left, impressive talent Ismaila Sarr on the right and the speed of Mbaye Niang through the middle, with Monaco starlet Keita Balde on the bench.
Such speed in attack is, frankly, frightening. And the Polish felt the full force of what this athletic forward line is capable of, highlighted by the second goal.
Ghosting in unmarked from the right, Niang capitalised on a poor back-pass from Grzegorz Krychowiak and beat Wojciech Szczesny to the loose ball, knocking it beyond the Juventus stopper, to put Senegal 2-0 ahead.
Although the first took a fortunate deflection on its way past Szczesny, it arose, again, from Niang’s speed on the break after he smartly dispossessed right back Lukasz Piszczek, who couldn’t track back quickly enough.
Countering at speed was only half of Metsu’s plan in 2002, and the same can be said for Cisse this summer. The foundation of any counter-attack is strength at the back. Without a solid defence capable of withstanding a barrage, there’s no counter.
16 years ago the Lions of Teranga started Lamine Diatta and Pape Malick Diop – playing for Ligue 1 sides Rennes and Lorient, respectively – at the heart of defence against France. Cisse, though, has Kalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sane as his duo of choice.
Koulibaly, currently of Napoli, is one of Europe’s highest rated centre backs, whilst Sane, formerly of Hannover, has recently put pen to paper on a move to Schalke.
Their combined three tackles, four interceptions and six successful headed duels were absolutely essential in keeping Robert Lewandowski quiet, Bayern Munich’s star striker that scored the most goals in European qualification for the tournament.
A manager that understands
“You have to really understand the African mentality,” Salif Diao told Jack Pitt-Brooke in an interview with the Independent, and in Aliou Cisse, Senegalese have the most understanding of the lot.
Cisse was not just there to witness the success of 2002, he led it as captain. Nobody is more suited to this job and there are none that can relate to this group of players more. He doesn’t just understand the African mentality, he is the African mentality.
“We could have gone to the next stage,” Diao continued.
“I cannot be satisfied by that. So I always say to the next generation: don’t be small winners. We acted like small winners. We proved something, but we could have proved a lot more.”
“It’s a little bit too early,” Cisse relented, but these Lions of Teranga can do just that.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Senegal plus all the action from the rest of Day 7 in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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