Senegal have become accustomed to going deep into tournaments and their players have warned England they will not be satisfied to bow out gracefully in the first knock-out stage.
‘The last 16 is not the objective,’ said midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye after the emotion victory against Ecuador, which set up Sunday’s clash with Gareth Southgate‘s team at the Al Bayt Stadium. ‘We see beyond that. We have no limits. We have a squad to go far. Playing like this, we can do something really interesting in this competition.’
The message to 17million Senegalese people from captain and goal hero Kalidou Koulibaly had a similar theme. ‘Don’t party, don’t be happy,’ said Koulibaly. ‘We did something good but it’s only the beginning. England or whoever, we will do everything to win the game. We are Senegal, we fear no-one. Lot’s of teams don’tA want to play against us.’
Idrissa Gana Gueye says that his Senegal team are already looking beyond the last sixteen
This is the spirit and determination forged during almost eight years under manager Aliou Cisse, captain of the Senegal team that reached the last eight in 2002.
Cisse is a strong and soothing presence and his team is making clear progress.
In the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), they have developed from quarter finalists in 2017, to runners-up two years later and champions for the first time in February this year, the 2021 edition of the tournament delayed by the Covid pandemic.
In the World Cup, they went out in the group stage in Russia 2018, eliminated on yellow cards after being locked together on four points with Japan, but, this year, advanced from Group A with six points, beating in-form Ecuador 2-1 in a bruising encounter on Tuesday.
Gueye (right) celebrates as Senegal book their place in the knockout stage with win over Ecuador in Group A
Afterwards, Cisse’s players all remarked how it had felt so similar to an AFCON tie, intense with so much depending on it, a test of their physical and mental strength.
‘They wanted to hurt us but we are used to that,’ said Chelsea centre-half Koulibaly, who scored the winner with his first goal in 67 games for his country.
‘We are African Champions, we are used to duels. We knew we were going to respond. Senegal are better when they have their backs against the wall. We saw real Lions on the pitch. I am happy and proud of this team.’
Gana Gueye will miss the game against England through suspension after collecting his second yellow card of the World Cup against Ecuador.
‘I’m really disappointed,’ said the influential Everton midfielder. ‘But I’m happy for the team. I’m just hoping they can do the job and I can play in the quarter-finals. We keep saying in training and all the time that we need the whole squad and we can only do this altogether in this kind of competition.
Aliou Cisse’s side will face England on Sunday in a first-time meeting between the countries
Gueye says Senegal’s African Cup of Nations win has given them the confidence in Qatar
‘We have a big experience in the AFCON and in that sort of competition you need everybody, not just 11 or 12 players. Everybody has to be committed. The subs have to work hard in training to be ready in case the manager calls them in. I congratulated the whole squad because they were all like that.’
Senegal reached the last 16 for the first time since 2002 despite the loss of their talisman Sadio Mane, the former Liverpool forward now at Bayern Munich and injured on the eve of the tournament.
Others have stepped up to fill the void. Watford speed merchant Ismaila Sarr looked dangerous on the left against Ecuador, scoring the opening goal from a penalty he won himself.
Ismaila Sarr has been described as the ‘X-Factor’ by Gueye and could make the difference against England this weekend
‘He can be the X-Factor,’ said Gueye. ‘The kind of player who takes on players and makes the difference. He is playing really well and he can be even better, he just has to work hard and keep going, believe in himself.
‘He can be a leader, and he can’t be scared because we have the midfielders behind him to compensate and recover the ball. He can focus on attacking. We need him to do this and play these kind of games.’
Sheffield United’s Iliman Ndiaye, making his first World Cup start against Ecuador, was outstanding during the first half, with his pace and trickery on the right.
‘We’re not surprised because we’ve seen him in training,’ said Gueye. ‘He really works hard and wants to go far in his career. He copies a lot Sadio Mane and that helped him.
‘The first time he joined us he was a bit shy, but he’s worked hard with his club and now you can he is more mature, more confident, he’s really good for us and I hope he continues like this.’