England are preparing to face Senegal in the last-16 of the World Cup with two warning signs: the African champions are a tournament-hardened opposition and one, as Jordan Henderson pointed out, who are “used to winning”. But there is also the old English disease of presumption to combat against as talk has already shifted dangerously to a potential quarter-final against France.
That talk, of course, belongs to the fans, the chatter and hype back home, the media even but is certainly not taking place within the England camp. Gareth Southgate simply will not allow it. The manager has already hammered into his players the need to guard against complacency, or dropping their standards, and it was telling that Henderson was the one elected to speak ahead of Sunday’s game.
“Honestly, I don’t want to sound boring but I don’t care who we could get in the quarter-final,” the highly-experienced midfielder, who is a leader within this squad, said when asked about ensuring England do not get ahead of themselves. “It’s all about Senegal. It’s all about round of 16. Hopefully we are still here next week and hopefully we can talk about the next round. But until then, 100 per cent focussed on Senegal.”
The cliché of taking it ‘one game at a time’ is only a cliché because it must be the way footballers approach matches, particularly as we are into the business end of the World Cup. It is all or nothing from now on. There might only be one more game so guard against getting the bunting out amid the Christmas fairy lights for what would be a monumental clash (probably) against the world champions, Kylian Mbappe and Co next Saturday evening. There is simply no margin for error and it helps that recent history is also a neon-lit warning sign for England.
The last time they, potentially, had a quarter-final against France (who face Poland four hours before England kick-off) to look forward to was at Euro 2016… when they ran into Iceland, the Thunder Clap, the nasty night in Nice and the trauma of one of the ignominious defeats in England’s 150-year history.
Henderson was on the bench for that shocking performance and is one of seven survivors from the squad – along with Harry Kane, Kyle Walker, John Stones, Eric Dier, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. What happened then is another reminder of just how far England have come under Southgate.
“When you go through experiences together – good ones but also when you have really hurt and suffered and we have been through that in the last few tournaments – that can make you really stronger as a team and makes you come closer together and want to put things right,” Henderson argued.
Since Iceland, England have won two knock-out games at a World Cup, only losing the third – the semi-final – after extra-time and then went the distance at the last European Championship when they reached the final, extra-time and a penalty shoot-out. That is a lot of experience of knock-out football to be able to use from the memory banks. If Senegal are battle-hardened then so are England.
Oddly England’s 1,040th international match will be their first against the Lions of Teranga who finished runners-up to the Netherlands, having defeated Qatar and Ecuador in Group A. It is the also first time England have faced African opposition in a knock-out tie since Sir Bobby Robson’s side defeated Cameroon 3-2 after extra-time in the quarter-finals of Italia 90.
Rather like England, Senegal have a former player who has been in charge for some time, in Aliou Cisse, who has led them impressively since 2015 and took them to the 2018 World Cup, where they were eliminated on the Fifa Fair Play yellow card tie-breaker, and two consecutive finals of the African Cup of Nations.
Earlier this year they beat Egypt on penalties, having been the better team, and have tried to get into English heads by talking up how they would relish taking the last-16 tie to another shoot-out. They are brimming with self-belief and Cisse, the former Birmingham City midfielder, wants history to repeat itself: he was captain when Senegal reached the quarter-finals in 2002.
England’s concern will be to break down Senegal's formidable base
They may be without the injured Sadio Mane, probably the best player Senegal has ever produced, and the suspended Idrissa Gueye which will weaken their already depleted midfield, but England’s concern will be to break down their formidable base.
It has not been a great season at Chelsea for goalkeeper Edouard Mendy or captain Kalidou Koulibaly but they have shone – as have club team-mates such as Morocco’s Hakim Ziyech and the United States’ Christian Pulisic – at this tournament. Add in centre-half Abdou Diallo, who plays for RB Leipzig on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, and it will not be easy while English supporters are aware of the threat posed by Ismaila Sarr. He may be in the Championship with Watford but the forward is undoubtedly Premier League quality. Fellow attackers Iliman Ndiaye, from Sheffield United who is skilful like Sarr, and the more physical Boulaye Dia are also a threat.
“It always will be really, really tough especially against a team who are African champions,” Henderson, who is expected to keep his place after his assured substitute appearance against the USA and playing well in the win over Wales, warned.
“Yes, we can see they are missing Sadio Mane who is a huge player for them and an amazing player for any team. But they have got into the knock-out stages without him and are feeling confident, feeling good and they are used to winning.”
It will not be easy for England but it appears they are ready for the challenge and should go through.