Sadio Mané and Senegal ready to surprise at the World Cup

Sadio Mané for Senegal
FRANCEVILLE, GABON - JANUARY 19: Sadio Mane of Senegal celebrates his goal and acknowledges the assist from Keita Balde during the Group B match between Senegal and Zimbabwe at Stade Franceville on January 19, 2017 in Franceville, Gabon. (Photo by Visionhaus/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sadio Mané and Senegal ready to surprise at the World Cup

Many would agree that this summer’s World Cup group H is the most balanced group. At a push, most would likely choose  Colombia and Poland to go through.

Senegal, however, at their first World Cup since 2002, have a talent pool that may surprise many. Finishing first in their group in African qualifying, they clocked up 14 points in six matches. With little expectation outside their fan base, they could be considered the dark horses of the group.

Who could prove to be catalysts for Les Liones de la Téranga along with Sadio Mané?

Kalidou Koulibaly

Koulibaly emerged as not only one of the top defenders in Italy this season, but also one of the top in world football. Although already on a talented team in Napoli, he has ignited interest from English powerhouses Chelsea and Manchester United.

Firstly, Koulibaly is an intimidating presence in the centre of the defence. He measures in at 1.93 meters and 89 kilograms. Opposing strikers have a task of matching up, and struggle to overpower him.

He averaged 1.7 tackles, 1.3 interceptions, and 3.6 clearances per game. When Napoli’s ball-dominant midfield happened to lose possession, Koulibaly was relied upon to reclaim it, more often than not succeeding.

Besides being more than reliable in his defense, Koulibaly has an offensive presence that’s impressive for a centre back. His top quality, arguably, is his passing ability. He averaged an astounding 90.8 passing completion percentage this season.

A player of two halves

Furthermore, his passes weren’t typically just side passes to his accompanying fullbacks. His average past length was 17 meters, and managed to create eight scoring chances. These statistics show a willingness to enter the attacking phase of the game. Lastly, Koulibaly dominates the air , managing to score five goals in this way.

Without a doubt, Koulibaly will lead the Senegalese defence. In a group with notable strikers such as Carlos Bacca, Radamel Falcao, Robert Lewandowski, Arkadiusz Milik, and Shinji Okazaki, Koulibaly must perform to his highest level to aid Senegal in their bid to reach the knockout stages.

Cheikou Kouyaté

Kouyaté is the captain of this Senegal side. He plies his trade for West Ham in England, and although they had a mildly disappointing season, Kouyaté remained a consistent presence in the midfield. He possesses similar physical attributes to Koulibaly, making him another dominant force. He’s also a very versatile player. Although his primary position is a defensive midfielder, he can also slot in a regular centre midfield role or play as a centre back. Kouyaté is very defensive-minded, but has seen some success while participating in attacks.

He averaged 2.2 tackles, one interception, and 1.5 clearances per game. He is a steady presence in front of his defence, but has the capabilities to play as a box-to-box midfielder. Aliou Cissé, Senegal’s manager, opted to call up a mere five midfielders, so the captain will be expected to play whatever role he is asked to partake in.

For Senegal’s midfield to succeed, Kouyaté must focus on improving his passing. His passing completion percentage of 76 percent this past season was subpar. Furthermore, WhoScored lists Kouyaté’s two main weaknesses as passing and holding onto the ball. Senegal has a very capable attack, and Kouyaté will have to become one of the main providers of the ball.

Keita Baldé

Keita spent seven years in Barcelona’s youth academy, and was hailed as a promising prospect. He broke onto the scene after scoring 47 goals in a single youth season while on loan at UE Cornellà. He earned a move to Lazio in Italy following this, and became a star winger. After scoring 16 goals in a single Serie A season, Keita transferred to Monaco in France.

His debut season for Monaco was solid, but not spectacular. This was mainly due to him spending a lot of time at striker as opposed to his preferred position on the wing. He still managed to to score eight goals and record seven assists, however. Keita excels at taking defenders on and beating them with dribbling and pace. He will be asked to do the same for Senegal, and will look to be their main counter-attacking threat.

The Mané issues for Sadio.

There are some aspects of his game he must improve upon this summer, however. First off, his passing ability needs work. He completed 76.5 percent of his passes this past season. Senegal cannot solely rely on counter-attacks, so Keita will need to make sure his side keeps possession often. He doesn’t show much commitment on defense, which will have to change. He was able to avoid the issue in Ligue 1, but the World Cup is a competition where every player must play with utilising all aspects of their game.

All in all, Keita will be one of the main attacking threats for Senegal. Truth be told, the opposing fullbacks in Group H are not world-class. Keita must be looking to exploit this, and he will certainly try do so.

Sadio Mané

Mané has enjoyed his most notable season to date. The winger was an integral part of Liverpool’s attack, and a key factor in their they making the UEFA Champions League Final.

He even managed to level the score in the final versus Real Madrid. His goal kept Liverpool alive after Mo Salah’s injury, and only cancelled out by Gareth Bale’s heroics, and Loris Karius’ errors.

He scored 10 goals and recorded seven assists in the Premiere League. More notably, he scored 10 goals in 11 Champions League matches, averaging a goal every 94 minutes.

Like Keita, Mané also excels in dribbling and beating defenders with pace. If Mané is not in a position to get free with his dribbling, he often plays layoff passes, thus freeing himself with sprints towards the opposing goal. Although he can create for himself at times, Senegal’s midfielders and forwards will have to find Mané to see success.

One criticism of Sadio Mané, like most wingers, is his defensive contribution. For the World Cup, however, this is expected to change. He will receive more back up in the Senegal side, thus providing him with more space to shine.

Mané was all over the pitch during the Champions League Final, showing he has the willingness to do whatever it takes to win important matches. After this past season, Mané will likely be Senegal’s star.

Opposing scouting reports will likely place most focus on him, and rightfully so. Although not the captain, Senegal will also rely heavily on Mane’s leadership and experience to see them through to the knockout stages.

The Last Word

Colombia and Poland are the favorites to qualify for the knockout stages out of Group H, but not overwhelmingly. Senegal have been written off, after not to not making noise on the international stage for a while.

The last time they were in a World Cup, however, they made a memorable quarter-final run in 2002. Senegal have the individual talent that can lead them there, again. That is, if every player steps up to the challenge. Senegal’s could well accomplish their dream of making the knockout stages.

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