Kalidou Koulibaly’s controlled volley was the winner as Senegal defeated Ecuador to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
Moisés Caicedo had cancelled out Ismaïla Sarr’s earlier penalty, but the Senegal captain restored the Lions of Teranga’s advantage shortly afterwards in what would prove the deciding goal.
The USA are playing later today, but if you asked one of their fans to explain basketball, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking they were describing the first breathless half an hour of this game. The pace was frantic, the play direct and vertical, as both sides took turns to attack.
Ecuador started with both their full backs pushed very high up the pitch, a particularly brave tactic given the pace of the Senegal wide players, and the fact that Aliou Cissé’s men were happy to press those full backs man-for-man. The same Senegal who came into this game with the joint-most shot-ending high turnovers thus far in the competition.
Idrissa Gueye was his usual hive of activity, playing in an advanced role just off the main forward, as the Lions of Teranga looked to exploit the spaces in behind Ecuador’s defence. He had an early attempt before Boulaye Dia dragged a really good chance (worth 0.3 xG) wide.
But on the half-hour mark, things calmed down. It seemed like Ecuador remembered they didn’t need to win, and Senegal sort of forgot they did.
The calm only lasted so long. Ismaïla Sarr – full of verve and running – burst in behind his full-back with an out-to-in run, and was felled in the box by Piero Hincapié.
Sarr dusted himself off and stepped (or walked) up to take the penalty. Any Senegalese fans of a Watford persuasion would’ve been watching through their fingers given the winger has seen both of his penalties for Watford since the start of last season saved, including one that he had to take twice against David de Gea.
Other Watford fans might have been slightly irate by the calmness with which Sarr slotted home – trotting up and staring down Hernán Galíndez without glancing down at the ball. The flying winger thus became the second Watford player to ever score at a World Cup, after Gerry Armstrong for Northern Ireland at Spain 82.
Sarr has been Senegal’s biggest threat by far in this tournament. He leads his side for shots (9) and is second for chances created (5). Only Kylian Mbappé can better Sarr’s total of six chance-creating carries with eight.
The half-time whistle went and such was Senegal’s effervescent start that in this game they’d already posted their highest-ever xG value in a World Cup match.
With their attack stuttering, Ecuador needed a lifeline and they got it via tournament football’s old friend: a set piece. Moisés Caicedo poked in what was really Ecuador’s first real chance of the game, after a near-post flick on from Hincapié, no doubt relieved that he had contributed positively at the other end of the pitch. The equaliser meant Caicedo is now the youngest player to score for Ecuador in a World Cup match (21y 027d).
According to our live win probability model, that goal was worth a 54.6% qualifying probability swing, with Ecuador going from a 27.9% of qualifying to a huge 82.5%.
But Senegal had other ideas, and were back in front minutes later, Koulibaly volleying home from a set-piece. Just as he did for Chelsea against Tottenham in August, the captain displayed exceptional technique to dispatch the chance.
Sarr remained a fantastic outlet for Senegal as they successfully hung on to their advantage, winning eight fouls, three more than any other player, frequently getting his side up the pitch.
Senegal are into the knockouts for the first time since 2002 under Bruno Metsu. Current manager Aliou Cisse played in four of their five matches at that tournament, so he’ll be familiar with what’s needed to go deep in a World Cup.
The only blemish on an otherwise perfect night was that Gueye was booked and will be suspended for their next game, against the winners of Group B. We’ll find out who that will be later on today.