Afcon 2019: Is Senegal's wealth of options a blessing or a curse?

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The Lions of Teranga have a plethora of talent across the side, but managing them effectively will be vital to their Africa Cup of Nations success

Senegal began the 32nd edition of the Africa Cup of Nations as one of the favourites to lift the trophy on July 19, and it’s easy to understand why, based on their emphatic 2-0 victory over Tanzania.

Their performance, without star player Sadio Mane, was impeccable, and while Emmanuel Amuneke’s side didn’t give themselves much of a chance with their error-strewn performance, the victors were full value for their success as they dominated the East African nation. 

Aliou Cisse has got one of the talented if not the most talented bunch of players in the tournament at his disposal, and while they aren’t the only side brimming with quality at this year’s showpiece, the class in their team trumps most at the competition.

As is often the case for nearly all teams prior to international tournaments, the focus heading into the competition is on the most prominent names in the squads.

Moussa Konate and Sadio Mane - Senegal

For the Lions of Teranga, the first names that come to mind are Sadio Mane and Kalidou Koulibaly. The pair are key figures for Liverpool and Napoli respectively and are expected to reprise their important club roles at the Nations Cup for Cisse’s side.

The West Africans’ situation coming into the finals is a peculiar one too; for a side that has never claimed an Afcon title, the fact that they are one of the top guns at the biennial showpiece is perhaps unusual.

Maybe it isn’t so strange, after all, when the quality in the side is critically examined.

On the face of it, Cisse has the best side at the finals going by the characteristics of the players he has at his beck and call. The talent is recognizable throughout the team and Morocco are arguably the only side that can rival them for technical quality.

Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet Mohamed Salah Egypt Afcon 22062019

While host nation Egypt may have a thing or two to say about the aforementioned statement, their slight dependence on talisman Mohamed Salah likely rules them out.

All the same, the Pharaohs are certainly strong contenders for the title due to their past success as hosts.

On the four previous occasions that Egypt have hosted the tournament – 1959, 1974, 1986 and 2006 – they’ve gone on to win the trophy every time except in 1974, when Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) eliminated them in the semi-final.

Javier Aguirre’s side will have to contend with possibly the best Senegal side in over a decade if they’ll end up triumphing on home soil.

While Cisse tried to downplay expectations before Sunday’s encounter with the Taifa Stars, this current bunch are probably at par, if not better, than the side he captained in 2002.

Aliou Cisse

"I think the favourites should be a team that has already won it before. It is not the case with us. We have not won this trophy before despite our achievements in reaching the quarter-finals of the World Cup and the final of the Afcon in 2002,” Cisse told Goal.

"Perhaps the press and analysts have made Senegal favourites because of the presence of big players like Mane, Kalidou Koulibaly and Gana [Idrissa Gueye] and because we are at the top of the African ranking, but we do not look at winning the title yet, just the first round and our goal is to win all the matches at that stage of the competition.

"We will have to fight a lot of difficulties to produce our best possible performance and win the championship.”

The team Cisse played in possessed a quality spine and this current group aren’t so bad themselves. Marshaled by Koulibaly at the back, they rarely give anything away to opposition forwards, are solid in midfield with Everton’s Gueye taking no prisoners in the middle of the park, while Mane leads the forwards, albeit from out wide.

Idrissa Gueye of Senegal

Against Tanzania, a K2-led backline - that included Youssouf Sabaly and Moussa Wague - conceded only three shots for the entirety of the game, while the front three of Ismaila Sarr, M’Baye Niang and Keita Balde were a thorn in the side of Emmanuel Amuneke’s troops and should have scored too.

Balde opened, the scoring but Niang, who had a profligate game, missed a staggering three big chances while Sarr missed one. Mane’s absence wasn’t felt at all and, in fact, their dominance without him should scare the entire competition.

While they possess a watertight defence, the firepower in attack is beyond frightening. Besides the aforementioned four forwards, the Lions of Teranga still have 30-goal Galatasaray frontman Mbaye Diagne in their arsenal. With Stade Rennais’ striker Niang misfiring on Sunday, Cisse called upon Moussa Konate, not Diagne, to lead the line, which was surprising.

But it only underscores the plethora of options available to their manager as well as the strength of the side and competition for places. 

Cisse can play down expectations all he wants in public, but one suspects he truly believes they have a chance to win the title, but he has to handle the wealth of talent at his disposal adequately.

He missed in the shootout defeat by Cameroon 17 years ago, but with this current group, Cisse can atone for that miss as manager by guiding this golden generation to the biggest crown on the continent.

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