After a slow start to their Africa Cup of Nations campaign, Sadio Mane’s Senegal are finally starting to justify their tag as pre-tournament favourites heading into Wednesday’s semi-final against Burkina Faso.
The west African rivals meet in Yaounde with Aliou Cisse’s team looking for the victory that would take them through to a second consecutive AFCON final, two and a half years on from their defeat to Algeria in Cairo.
The Lions of Teranga carry the pressure of being Africa’s top-ranked national team and perhaps feel the weight of history more heavily too: Senegal have never been continental champions, while on the other side of the draw stand Egypt and Cameroon, the two most successful nations in the tournament’s history with a combined 12 titles.
Senegal are fresh from seeing off a spirited Equatorial Guinea in Sunday’s quarter-final, winning 3-1 in a game that showcased the strength in depth available to Cisse.
After they had been pegged back to 1-1 early in the second half, Cisse looked to his bench and sent on two Premier League players in Cheikhou Kouyate of Crystal Palace and Watford’s Ismaila Sarr.
Both went on to score.
It was a first appearance at the tournament for the gifted winger Sarr, who Senegal brought to Cameroon despite him not having played for Watford since November due to injury.
“I insisted that he should be in the squad and we had to fight with Watford for two months to get him,” Cisse said.
“He has worked hard to be fit and come back but I’m not sure if he is ready to start a game yet. We will go one step at a time with him.”
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Senegal’s AFCON campaign began in underwhelming fashion as they topped their group despite scoring just one goal, and that was a 97th-minute penalty by Mane to beat Zimbabwe.
However, they were affected by Covid-19 cases with Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and defensive rock and captain Kalidou Koulibaly sitting out their first two games after testing positive.
Midfielder Nampalys Mendy –- who has only made one appearance all season for his club Leicester City — is another who did not feature in the opening two outings but has since come in and was the man of the match against Equatorial Guinea.
It is not uncommon for teams to start slowly at a major tournament before coming good –- France hardly convinced in the group stage before winning the 2018 World Cup, while eventual champions Portugal drew all three group matches at Euro 2016.
Senegal have come good in the knockout rounds, beating Cape Verde 2-0 in the last 16 with second-half goals from Mane and substitute Bamba Dieng, before seeing off Equatorial Guinea.
“We know we can do better, but we know we’re getting stronger,” said Koulibaly after Sunday’s game at the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium in Yaounde, where they will return on Wednesday.
“I think that after the first and second games, or even the group games, nobody saw us there, but today we can be happy.”
Even if they overcome Burkina Faso, getting the better of the hosts or a Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt in the final may be a different story.
Yet Mane, who posed for a picture with his Liverpool teammate Salah as the two crossed paths in Yaounde on Sunday, summed up the mood.
“We are Senegal and we are capable of beating any team,” he insisted.