Senegal has changed drastically since 2018. The team looks more powerful, more rigid, and more lethal than the 2018 team. That team four years ago only bowed out due to Fair Play Rules as a tiebreaker. The Lions of Teranga went 100 minutes with a team projected to forge a deep run into the knockout rounds. And they did it without star player Sadio Mane.
The AFCON-winning side may have lost their opening match. Still, they are in a position to show the world its new, exciting talent.
Gakpo and Klaassen score as the game closes
Unlike the England-Iran shootout, the World Cup opener between Senegal and Netherlands was a close, defensively-oriented matchup. The two opposing goalies did not worry much as both nations looped shot after shot over the crossbar. For both sides, breaking through seemed impossible. Of course, there were chances. Frenkie de Jong nearly opened up the scoring in the 19th minute. The Barcelona midfielder was alone in the box. However, he took too much time on the box, letting Senegal slam the ball away.
Ismaila Sarr nearly gave Senegal its first goal of the tournament when he beat Denzel Dumfries on the wing. Big Virgil van Dijk sent his looping shot away for a corner. In the middle of the second half, Dutch stopper Andries Noppert had to make a diving save to contest Boulaye Dia’s strike and keep his clean sheet. Yet, for the most part, the match looked like it would end in a stalemate.
Enter PSV midfielder Cody Gakpo.
In the 84th minute, Frenkie de Jong guided a beautiful cross into the heart of the box. Only Gakpo, ready to attack, was in the box. Maybe Edouard Mendy didn’t see him out of his peripheral vision. Maybe Mendy thought he could outpace Gakpo. Whatever the reason, Gakpo caught Mendy at the right time to sneakily guide a header past his outstretched hands and into the bottom left corner of the net. One-nil to the Netherlands.
Tension rose and the Lions of Teranga grew impatient. They shot from far out, and fought ferociously for the ball, but couldn’t break down the Netherlands’ defense.
Senegal’s eagerness to push everyone up and find a game-winner ended in disaster. Memphis Depay got behind a long ball, faced Kalidou Koulibaly, and fired a shot. A stranded Mendy made the first save, but couldn’t stop Davy Klaassen’s rebound in the 99th minute. The game ended 2-0 for the Dutch, leaving Senegal with questions to answer.
Mixed reception as Senegal falls to the Netherlands in World Cup
Senegal performed well above their pay grade. Going toe-to-toe with the Netherlands is no small task. Senegal was poised with the ball, making numerous deep crosses and pushing the Dutch defense to its limits. Senegal spent most of its time with the ball by suffocating the six-yard box and threatening Noppert. If they can force a jaw-dropping performance out of one of the contenders for the World Cup, they can surely dominate Friday’s match against Qatar.
Senegal’s defense just seems off. It’s not like the Senegal defense is bad. It has one of the best keepers in the world(Edouard Mendy), one of the best center-backs(Kalidou Koulibaly), and quality pieces to play around with(Abdou Diallo, Youssouf Sabaly). Yet the injury of Fode Ballo might throw everything into disarray.
Take, for example, the Netherlands’ opening goal. Cody Gakpo made a sneaky run from the edge of the box into the six-yard box with little to no opposition despite there being two extra defenders in the box. He ended up getting a good header that turned into a goal.
Even the goal that killed Senegal in the 99th minute showed signs of discoordination among the back line. When Depay latches onto the long ball, the only defender able to contest his attempt is Koulibaly, making the incoming rebound from Klaassen lethal.
Senegal’s odds of making it to the knockout round look surprisingly grim despite getting the toughest game out of the way. FiveThirtyEight rates its chances of making it to the round of 16 at 27%. In contrast, the Netherlands stands at 95%, Ecuador at 72% and Qatar at 5%.
Senegal’s loss to the Netherlands means Aliou Cisse’s side needs a dominant performance against Qatar and absolute perfection against Ecuador. Even then, they might need some help from the Netherlands in their Friday match against Ecuador.
It seems unfair that losing a closely fought game to a top-ten nation in the Netherlands can potentially force Senegal into a tight spot where they can’t decide their own future at the World Cup. However, the tournament is brutal, and it stops for no one. Friday’s match against Qatar awaits.
Krepin Diatta fills in for Mane
Although Senegal doesn’t have the skills of Sadio Mane to rely on this World Cup, Krepin Diatta filled that void against the Netherlands. The Monaco attacker performed fairly well facing Daley Blind. He had 45 touches in 74 minutes, had a couple of big passes, and created some chances for his attacking partners Sarr and Boulaye Dia.
But we don’t know the limits of Senegal’s attacking depth. Marseille’s Bamba Dieng played 21 minutes and had a couple of good chances, but he had only five touches. Villarreal youngster Nicolas Jackson played 16 minutes and had eleven touches, but his impact on the game was largely negligible.
The starting front three of Krepin Diatta, Boulaye Dia, and Ismaila Sarr need to produce more.
Kouyaté goes down
Cheikhou Kouyaté is arguably the core of Aliou Cisse’s midfield, and against the Oranje, he showed it. He had four clearances, four duels won, two interceptions, 36 touches, and 18 passes. The defense revolved around him, and if he finds an opening, he can kickstart the Senegalese offense.
That’s why Kouyaté leaving the Al Thumama Stadium on a stretcher will put another dent in Senegal’s World Cup dreams. Although Marseille prodigy Pape Gueye provided defensive stability and nearly scored, Kouyaté’s absence is probably the reason why Senegal conceded two late goals.
Many say that Kouyaté’s injury is hamstring-related, and it would make sense. Kouyaté has struggled with injuries around his hamstring early in his career, so a hamstring injury could be devastating.
Pape Gueye is the obvious choice to replace Kouyaté, but Tottenham reserve Pape Sarr or Reading’s Mamadou Loum could get some game time ahead of a showdown with Qatar.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Xinhua
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