Senegal couldn’t replace Sadio Mane at the World Cup, and if that wasn’t already clear, it has now been forcefully underlined. While Senegal and the Netherlands were drawn into a game that called for a moment of individual inspiration, the Teranga Lions missed the source of theirs. It was a chance for Senegal against a Netherlands side that failed to impress and deliver on their promise, but the opening closed when Cody Gakpo found the gap between Edouard Mendy and their defensive line.
Any team would miss a player of Mane’s class and status, but it’s a pain that can only be felt by Senegal in Qatar. “He’s our best player, the leader in that respect,” their manager Aliou Cissé said, as news trickled in that the country’s talisman, top scorer and hero of the most important moment in their history football would play no due role It was the cruellest blow before a tournament where Senegal, champions of Africa, dreamed of innovating. Mane’s injury made it harder, and it’s even more unlikely now.
Cissé, after all, admitted that Senegal had built their team around Mane, as many international managers would. Mane’s absence not only took away 34 international goals, leaving the team second-highest with a tally of 10, but led to a recalibration of their whole approach. “When you talk about morale, of course it affects you,” Cisse said. “We’re going to have to work even harder as a team without him.”
Senegal kept Cisse’s promise but they couldn’t offer much else despite the problems they caused the Dutch. What Senegal could do in their opening game was to redouble their efforts, commit to Cissé’s adjusted plans and play with the confidence and self-assurance of a team that has learned to win more. earlier this year when they beat Egypt on penalties to win the Africa Cup of Nations.
It could only lead them so far. It may not be the best Dutch vintage, and their recent Nations League results have obscured the stark shortcomings of Louis van Gaal’s side. In the spells, Senegal was able to not only match the Netherlands, but cause them considerable difficulties. They might not have Mane on the left wing but Ismaila Sarr made a good impression by targeting Matthijs de Ligt, who spent most of the first half being dragged into the channels and, like a fish out of water, out of breath.
For a time, this caused some discomfort in the Dutch defence. Krepin Diatta posed similar questions to Nathan Ake and overall Senegal found joy in stretching and pulling the Netherlands while filling the central spaces with runs from Idrissa Gueye and Nampalys Mendy.
Clearly, however, Mane leaves behind a void for Senegal that no player, system or approach can fill. After an open and promising first half for the first leg of this World Cup, Senegal and the Netherlands were dragged down by the feeling of not wanting to lose rather than do anything to win. There was instead an absence of quality, which affected both sides but bit Senegal harder.
While Mane’s absence deprived Senegal of their main attacking player, one could argue that for the Netherlands their problem was that they didn’t have one in the first place. With Memphis Depay limited by injury, Vincent Jansen and Steven Bergwijn were an uninspired and ineffectual front line. Gakpo looked rather lost in his deployment as a No.10 behind.
The Netherlands had no one to hit, no one to support their attacks, until Frenkie de Jong picked out Gakpo with a cross behind the back line, Mendy looking exposed as he came for the cross. Neither did Senegal, more importantly. Falling behind failed to inspire Cissé’s side and Mendy was caught for the second time as he parried Depay’s tame shot past Davy Klaassen. At that time, Senegal had missed their chance. Maybe that was already gone when Mane’s hopes of playing in the World Cup were also dashed.