Senegal's Sadio Mane alongside the Africa Cup of Nations trophy be before the final between Senegal and Algeria. Cairo International Stadium, Egypt, July 2019.

Struggling Sadio Mane is on a quest to earn Senegal AFCON redemption

Over two years have passed since the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final in Cairo, but the wounds probably still feel fresh for some members of the Senegal side that lost to Algeria.

The sight of nearly every Lions of Teranga player falling to the turf at the final whistle underscored the hurt of another opportunity missed on a night that promised so much.

Indeed, it was meant to be the West African nation’s time to finally reign supreme on the continent. But the mood soured after 90 minutes.

As Algeria celebrated only their second AFCON crown and a first since 1990, Senegal were left to lick their wounds after failing to recover from Baghdad Bounedjah’s fortuitous second-minute strike.

The cameras caught a crestfallen Sadio Mane sat on the turf, despondent at the result and an eventuality Senegal dreaded. Having waited 17 years to make another final since their 2002 defeat, Egypt 2019 was a real kick in the teeth.

An entire nation’s hopes of a fairytale ending were dashed for the second time, and the disappointment was palpable.

Perhaps Mane’s post-match sullenness communicated the displeasure at his performance in the decider. In arguably the nation’s biggest game in almost two decades, the Liverpool superstar could not replicate the decisiveness from previous rounds.

Mane had scored the sole strike in the 1-0 success over Uganda in the round of 16 and expertly slipped in Idrissa Gueye for the winner in the quarter-final win over Benin. However, the country’s best player was shot-shy against Algeria, managing only one attempt all night.

In a sense, Mane somewhat epitomised the Teranga Lions’ inability to consistently play through a dogged North African side that defended for their lives after netting the quickest goal in an AFCON final.

Despite out-shooting Djamel Belmadi’s men 12-to-one, the majority of Senegal’s attempts were low-percentage efforts from range.

Admittedly, they were denied an opportunity to level from 12 yards on the hour when Sidi Alioum overturned his original decision of a penalty after a pitch-side review of Adlene Guedioura’s handball. But there was no guarantee of success given their failed attempts prior to the final, missing three of four penalties in the competition.

Senegal manager Aliou Cisse insisted his team edged the game and merited more.

“A final is decided by fine margins and we deserved better tonight,” the 45-year-old stated after the defeat. “They put away the chance they needed. On the whole, we didn’t let ourselves down. We created chances but weren’t able to score.

“When you concede a goal so early in the match the plan becomes clear. You have to attack against an aggressive defence but we weren’t able to find the solutions.”

The former Lions of Teranga captain, who took over the national team in 2015 and led them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, was pleased by the progress they had made preceding that defeat by Algeria.

“The last time Senegal reached this point was in 2002. The experience of big matches, we want to be here more often,” Cisse said. “We’re getting closer to winning. The team has been making progress these past five years.

“It’s been 17 years since Senegal got to this stage of the competition. We’ve only experienced disillusion and disappointment.”

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READ: Six of the Premier League’s greatest ever AFCON players

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Indeed, Cisse has first-hand experience of Senegal’s 2002 heartache, having captained the country’s Golden Generation at the turn of the millennium.

The Lions of Teranga had conceded only one goal all the way through the 2002 tournament — in their 2-1 semi-final win over Nigeria — but had to contend with defending champions Cameroon in their first-ever AFCON final.

A strong Indomitable Lions side were favourites, owing to the sheer strength of Winfried Schafer’s squad and their performance before that encounter in Bamako.

The Central African nation, looking to become the second team in over three decades to retain their title, were the only side to navigate the group stage with a 100% record and boasted a watertight rearguard, demonstrated by a goals-conceded column that read zero all tournament.

Senegal could not breach the Cameroon backline, but neither could Cameroon beat the Senegal defence. Penalties ensued after a goalless final.

Once Pierre Wome’s opening penalty had been thwarted by Tony Sylva and the underdogs capitalised, Senegal appeared destined for a maiden crown. Yet misadventure loomed.

A trio of failures from superstars Khalilou Fadiga and El Hadji Diouf as well as captain Cisse dashed their hopes. The latter, in particular, rankled as the skipper could have forced the shootout into sudden death after Rigobert Song was denied the winning kick by Sylva.

“I want this Africa Cup of Nations. I have been running after it since 1999,” Cisse remarked in December 2021 after unveiling his 27-player squad for the 2022 tournament.

The Lions’ preparations have been far from ideal, with coronavirus forcing three players and six coaching staff into quarantine while the fitness of Kalidou Koulibaly and Ismaila Sarr is uncertain.

The former went off injured for Napoli in early December and the latter, despite Watford’s reluctance, will hope to feature in some capacity having been ruled out with a knee ligament damage since November.

Be that as it may, Senegalese President Macky Sall threw down the gauntlet before the team departed their camp.

“This time, I’m not talking about the final but the cup. You will have to fight to bring us the cup,” the nation’s leader told the side at the presidential palace. “You can do it. You are the best tactically, technically and qualitatively.”

The West Africans are 20th in FIFA’s rankings, but the continent’s top-ranked nation would trade that for an AFCON title in an instant. They are the only nation among Africa’s top eight to have never won the competition, something they aim to correct in Cameroon.

Undoubtedly, the weight of expectation is firmly placed on Mane’s shoulders, just as it was in 2019.

Despite missing the opening game through suspension, the Liverpool forward was the only Senegal player to score more than once at the finals, racking up three goals. Throw in his sole assist, and four goal involvements outdid everyone except Odion Ighalo’s six goal contributions for Nigeria at the 2019 tournament.

Yet it would be misguided to suggest the 29-year-old is playing at the same level as three years back.

Not only did the attacker head to the finals in Egypt after a season in which Liverpool claimed a sixth European Cup and narrowly missed out on the Premier League title but his deadly finishing emphasised his all-round brilliance.

By contrast, Mane enters AFCON 2021 a slightly diminished player whose final-third menace has dipped somewhat in the last 18 months or so. Underlying numbers reveal a drop off in the wide attacker’s finishing, with the Reds forward scoring fewer goals than expected in the aforementioned period.

While the strike against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in early January ended a nine-game drought in all competitions, there are doubts about the superstar’s form before the competition’s commencement.

Owing to the squad’s relative inexperience at this level — 17 members of the group are making their tournament debuts — the onus will be on Mane to accomplish what is necessary for the Lions of Teranga.

In a sense, they could count themselves unlucky to have faced off with Cameroon and Algeria in 2002 and 2019 respectively, as those sides possessed the individual and technical quality to rival both Senegal iterations.

This time around, regardless of the difficulties and a fluctuating star player, Senegal are fuelled by their ambition to right those previous wrongs to secure an elusive African title. A nation expects.

By Seye Omidiora

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