Resilient, experienced and motivated by Sadio Mane’s injury: Senegal are no easy World Cup contest for England

Resilient, experienced and motivated by Sadio Mane’s injury: Senegal are no easy World Cup contest for England

When England play their first knockout game of this World Cup, they will be taking on a side who have, effectively, already played their own and come through it with flying colours.

This was impressive stuff from Senegal, who beat Ecuador at the Khalifa International Stadium in a game the African champions had to win to nab the runners-up spot in Group A and set up what, even before England’s win over Wales, always looked likely to be a clash with Gareth Southgate’s side.

A point would have been enough for Ecuador, who were favourites to advance after two eye-catching performances but found themselves almost entirely nullified by a team who, under Aliou Cisse, have developed as much knockout nous and experience as any side here.

Four years ago, Senegal bowed out of the group stage on the farcical tiebreaker of fair play but have since reached two Africa Cup of Nations finals, winning the most recent, as well as coming through a do-or-die qualification play-off against Egypt to reach Qatar.

“We’re used to playing these kinds of games,” Cisse said yesterday.

Senegal were wasteful early on, both Idrissa Gueye and Boulaye Dia missing big chances inside the opening 10 minutes, but largely controlled the first half and took the lead through Ismaila Sarr’s penalty just before half-time.

Only when countered on by the pacy Gonzalo Plata down the right did they look vulnerable, a weakness which may sway Southgate towards the directness of Marcus Rashford or Bukayo Saka on that flank, rather than the craft of Phil Foden.

After the break, Senegal made a brief retreat, perhaps inhibited by suddenly having everything to lose, but after Ecuador’s equaliser, the response was immediate, as Kalidou Koulibaly’s volley snatched back the advantage.

Most impressive from that point was the way Cisse’s men learned from squandering their first lead; this time, there was no deepening of the backline as Senegal continued to commit bodies in search of the killer goal and, though it never arrived, saw out the result without major alarm, marshalled by Koulibally, outstanding at centre-back alongside RB Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo.

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England and Wales fans (Jeremy Selwyn)
England and Wales fans (Jeremy Selwyn)
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That pair will be crucial against England, with a much-lauded Senegalese spine otherwise not looking quite as strong as it was: in attack, Sadio Mane is missing through injury, midfielder Gueye is ruled out through suspension and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has been in poor form for Chelsea this season, already culpable in the opening defeat to the Netherlands.

The absence of Mane would weaken any side, but Senegal are looking to turn the adversity into motivation.

“We play for Sadio, he’s our star, our brother, we’re a family,” Koulibaly said. “We’re not listening to what’s being said, we believe in ourselves and we don’t intend to just go through the motions here. Two-thirds of the world thought that we were done after Sadio got injured, but the other third, us, Africa, had faith.”

Prior to Mane’s injury, there had been a sense that Senegal might be Africa’s best World Cup hope for several tournaments, perhaps even with a chance of going where no team from the continent has before and reaching a semi-final.

England first and then, possibly, defending champions France lie ahead, meaning the path looks treacherous, and such hopes may prove a stretch.