COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Senegal are Africa's highest ranked nation, per the Fifa rankings. In June, they will head to the Africa Cup of Nations hoping to, for the first time ever, rule the continent.
In the dugout will be Aliou Cisse, renewed until 2021, the legendary captain of their revered 2002 vintage: the group that put the Teranga Lions on the global map by romping to the World Cup quarter-final. This is a feat that only three African nations have managed; of the three, only Senegal have never mastered its own confederation.
It is a failing that the Senegalese FA feel ought to be put right this time.
Cisse has been mandated to make the final in 2019, which would equal their best ever finish. If the terms seem a little too stringent, consider this: the Teranga Lions are the top-ranked side in Africa, per the Fifa rankings.
Le Sénégal atteint encore la meilleure place de son histoire (23e) et devient la première nation en Afrique.
pic.twitter.com/H4Vngqu33m — Senegal Football (@SenegalFootball) November 29, 2018
If there is a sense that the rankings can sometimes be misleading, consider the talent pool from which they can choose.
Kalidou Koulibaly is of the very top tier of defenders in world football, and is rightly attracting interest from the likes of Manchester United after four strong years in Serie A with Napoli. Idrissa Gueye is the glue that holds Everton together, and has regularly posted elite ball-winning numbers in the Premier League while, in the red half of Merseyside, Sadio Mane is one-third of Europe's most fearsome attacking force.
Winger Ismaila Sarr, with his penchant for long-range screamers; Inter forward Keita Balde; the mercurial Mbaye Niang; flying full-backs Youssouf Sabaly and Moussa Wague; the towering Salif Sane—Senegal have no clear weaknesses.
Even in goal, the rise of Reims' Edouard Mendy has given them the sort of security that the competent Khadim Ndiaye previously did not.
In truth, strip away the nostalgia, and in terms of quality, this squad probably eclipses their previous Golden Generation.
All the African football legends will gather on the same pitch for the first time.
The Legends Match
All Africa stars Vs Senegal 2002#Africanlegendsareback #AiteoCAFawards18 pic.twitter.com/OrHzEsza3F — CAF (@CAF_Online) January 6, 2019
This group perhaps lacks the pure creative spark that a player like Khalilou Fadiga could provide, as well as the collective spirit, but those aside, there is greater individual ability.
How best to translate that, as well as Senegal's present place at the top of African football, is Cisse's biggest responsibility.
Since his appointment in 2015, he has offered up both the sublime and the underwhelming in equal measure. In the 2017 Afcon, his side tore through the group stage in impressive fashion, making light work of the 'Group of Death', before going out with a whimper in a penalty shoot-out loss to Cameroon.
At the World Cup last summer, a bright beginning saw Senegal defeat Group H seed Poland, only to then blow a lead against Japan, lose to Colombia and become the first nation ever to be eliminated from the World Cup on its disciplinary record.
Safe to say then that the jury is firmly out on his time in charge, and even more so as regards his technical and tactical nous.
At times, he has managed to come across as extremely lucid in his decision-making (as he did in that victory over Poland), while at others he seems unable to get the team to be greater than the sum of its parts.
In spite of this, the FSF have played their hand, and backed their man to deliver. More than ever before, the onus is on Cisse to prove that he can hack it at this level.
Aside the pressure of expectation, there is that of opportunity as well.
It is a unique moment in African football, with no truly dominant national side since Egypt in the noughties. In 2002, when Senegal got to the final of the Afcon, they were unfortunate to come up against a Cameroon side in its absolute pomp, and even then they only lost on penalties.
This time, there are no natural predators, as it were. Tunisia are the next best side per the rankings, but would hold no fear for the Teranga Lions. Morocco have a trump card in Afcon specialist Herve Renard, but not quite the same level of quality all over the pitch, while Nigeria boasts a young, slightly inexperienced side in terms of continental competition.
There simply may be no more opportune moment for a while yet.
That is the fear that will either cripple Cisse and Senegal, or drive them to ultimate glory.