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AFRICA CUP OF NATIONS

Can Liverpool’s Mané take Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations glory?

Jorge Guerrero, AFP | Senegal's forward Sadio Mané controls the ball during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group H football match between Japan and Senegal at the Ekaterinburg Arena in Ekaterinburg on June 24, 2018.

Ahead of their first match against Tanzania on June 23, Senegal are amongst the favourites to win the Africa Cup of Nations, boasting a range of dynamic talents, chief amongst them the masterly winger Sadio Mané.

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Senegal first captured the attention of the footballing world at the 2002 World Cup, when they eviscerated the reigning champions France 2-0 in their opening match, before an enthralling run to the quarter-finals – the same year they came second-place behind Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations. As the 2019 pan-continental tournament gets going on Friday, Senegal look better placed than ever before to eclipse that iconic run of form on the world stage nearly two decades ago.

The Teranga Lions, as they are nicknamed, are seen as the second likeliest winners of the tournament, with 7/1 odds – just behind the hosts, Mo Salah’s Egypt, at 9/2 – according to British bookmakers William Hill.

Mané, Senegal’s outstanding talent

The 27 year-old Senegal captain is the trump card behind these low odds. After a two-year spell at Southampton, then the Premier League’s hotbed of young talent, Mané’s £34 million (€38 million) transfer to Liverpool made him the most expensive African player ever, until the Merseyside club shelled out £36.9 million (€41.3 million) for Salah the subsequent year.

Mané has shown himself to be good value for that record-smashing fee. A constant menace to full-backs with his lacerating pace and often impeccable skill at getting past defenders, Mané overtook former Newcastle and Chelsea striker Demba Ba in April 2018 to become the highest-scoring Senegalese player in Premier League history, with 43 goals.

Perhaps his most impressive statistic was attained in the 2018-19 season – during which he played an integral role in the full-throated attacking football that brought Liverpool the sport’s highest accolade, the Champions League title, as well as pushing the eventual Premier League victors Manchester City to their utmost limits.

Mané matched his Egyptian attacking partner’s tally of 22 goals, as the two shared the Golden Boot with Arsenal’s Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Yet the Liverpool winger’s suspension for Senegal’s opening clash against Tanzania on Sunday highlights the wealth of talent the Teranga Lions can draw on across the pitch. “Certainly the presence of Mané is beneficial but without him we remain strong,” Senegal manager Aliou Cissé put it.

Mané to surpass Salah?

Indeed, 17 of those 23 players selected for the tournament by manager Aliou Cissé belong to top-tier European clubs. Arguably the most impressive of these – other than Mané – are Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly and Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye.

The 28 year-old Koulibaly has been a linchpin of the Neapolitan side since signing for them in 2014. His fearsome physical strength and consummate agility provided the necessary defensive solidity for the astonishing run of form that saw them almost snatch the Serie A title from Juventus’ jaws in 2017-18. Aside from these essential skills for a top-class defender, Koulibaly has also developed an impressive knack for launching his team’s attacks with penetrating passes from the back.

Positioned just in front of Koulibaly, as the midfield anchorman, Gueye possesses many of the same gifts. Combining rapid pace with an acute ability to read the game in advance, the 29-year old Everton star rose to the fore in his first year at the club after transferring from Aston Villa in the summer of 2016.

Guaye became the first player in Europe’s five most prestigious leagues to win 100 tackles over the course of that season, in February 2017, and has maintained impressive form since then – attracting an unsuccessful transfer bid from PSG, the French nouveaux riches attempting to become a first-rate club, in January 2019.

It seems that Mané, Koulibaly, Guaye and their teammates will face their first real test in the group stage, as they battle Algeria on June 27. Although the North African side lack the strength in depth of Cissé’s side, they possess a lethal weapon in the form of Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez, whose lightning speed and sharp tactical dexterity could cause a lot of trouble for the Senegalese back line.

But the ultimate test of Senegal’s prowess would be a clash against the current favourite in the betting odds, the tournament’s Egyptian hosts. If, as pundits expect, the Pharoahs win Group A and the Teranga Lions come out on top of Group C, the tournament’s schedule dictates that if both win every knockout match, they will face each other in the final. That would provide the ultimate forum for Mané to surpass the Liverpool teammate with whom he shares the Premier League Golden Boot.

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