AFCON 2021 Preview: Group B
Senegal are the Teranga Lions, Malawi are the Flames, Zimbabwe are the Warriors and you can call Guinea the Syli Nationale. What happens warriors charging on elephants and lions meet a flaming patch in Cameroon?
The answer is somewhere in the puzzle.
Can Mané Take Senegal One Step Further and Win First Title?
Just hours after clashing in one of the games of the Premier League season so far, Sadio Mané and Édouard Mendy departed England together to join their Senegalese teammates in camp ahead of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations AFCON.
A significant game between Chelsea and Liverpool saw both Senegalese counterparts leave with their heads held up high. Mané, with his predatory instincts as sharp as ever, capitalised on a defensive mistake to give the Reds the lead. Mendy, meanwhile, kept the Blues in the game in the second half making crucial saves to deny Mané and Mohamed Salah.
Senegal head coach Aliou Cisse will be hoping his two key men carry similar form to the AFCON – and, indeed, the same form that helped the Teranga Lions become the first country to secure a place in the tournament after beating Guinea-Bissau 1-0.
It’s the 16th time Senegal has qualified for the continental showpiece, but they are yet to ever win a trophy despite being routinely stacked with talent. They’re reigning runners-up after losing to Algeria in the 2019 final.
Senegal’s second golden generation – the first iteration similarly finished second at AFCON 2002 and powered their way to that year’s World Cup quarters – have limited time to write their names in history and failure to win the trophy could spell the end of an era. Mané, Cheikhou Kouyate, Idrissa Gueye, and Kalidou Koulibaly all expected to be 30 or above by the next AFCON in 2023.
Photos and videos from the team camp radiate calm, control and discipline. That is the mark of a typical Cisse setup. He suffers no fools, and Senegalese football in the last decade have had plenty of those who felt their individual talented trumped the team ethos.
Cisse, former captain of the team who led to that World Cup quarterfinal, who led the Senegal team that went to the quarterfinals of the London Olympics, who built this team from scratch, has built this team in his image.
There’s a running joke in the team that whatever physical exercise the players can do, the coach can match. Even though he commands total respect because he’s been there and done that, Cisse is popular because of his adaptability.
Before he took over in 2015, the lazy approach to coaching the team was to rely too much on the seemingly endless production line for finishers. For him, the team shape depends on who’s available, although he’s known to prefer a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
Above all else, his teams must be built on solid defences.
Time to Prove Best in Africa Tag
For the past three years, Senegal have been ranked as the best team in Africa by FIFA – a testament to their level of consistency. Since Cisse took charge in 2015, he’s led the Teranga Lions to the AFCON final in 2019 and was on the brink of qualification to the knockout round of the 2018 World Cup.
There’s been steady progress, with the Lions now currently 20th in the FIFA rankings worldwide. With all this mind, this team know that anything but triumph in Cameroon will be certain failure.
In 2018, the 45-year-old coach received a contract extension and was tasked with reaching the final of the AFCON at least. Despite his contract being renewed until the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the former captain’s targets were elevated, as he’s expected to return from Cameroon with a trophy.
He did not make expectations easier after going unbeaten in qualification. Cisse’s men scored 10 goals in the qualifiers, conceding just twice.
A positive for Cisse is the consistency among his team in terms of personnel. The core of the squad that finished as runners-up in Egypt three years ago are in the current setup. The spine of the team remains Mendy in goal, Koulibaly leading from the back, Gueye marshaling the midfield, with Mané expected to be in charge upfront.
Cisse Can Count on Mendy and Mané
Koulibaly, who had been an injury doubt after tearing his hamstring against Sassuolo early December, was included in the Senegal squad and is currently training with the team. It remains unclear if the Napoli defender will be fit in time to face Zimbabwe on January 10 in Bafoussam.
However, heading into this tournament, Cisse will need Mendy and Mané to be at their absolute best if they’re to stand a chance of ending their trophy drought. Mendy, in particular, comes into this tournament with unfinished business after missing majority of the last edition due to injury.
He kept a clean sheet in the first two games of the 2019 edition, only for a broken finger during the warm-up of Senegal’s final group game against Kenya to force an end to his adventure. Mendy was flown to France for treatment from his then club, Stade de Reims, with Alfred Gomis replacing him in posts for the rest of the tournament in Egypt.
One wonders if things may have panned out differently had Mendy been in goal during the final against Algeria. A lot can change in three years and this time he comes in as a Champions League winner and one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
Since joining Chelsea, Mendy has prevented four goals from being conceded across the Premier League and Champions League based on Opta’s expected goals on target model, whilst keeping 37 clean sheets in 70 competitive appearances for the Blues – no Premier League goalkeeper has kept more since his debut for the club in September 2020.
Senegal are expected to dominate most of their games in the AFCON but Mendy will have a crucial role to play in helping them remain compact.
On the other end of the pitch, Mané will be expected to lead the line once again. Also 29, he contributed to 50% of Senegal’s goals in the 2019 AFCON, scoring three goals and providing an assist.
It could have been more with Mané missing two penalties – against Kenya in the group stage and Uganda in the round of 16.
Interestingly, Mané took a temporary break from penalties after his miss against Uganda, saying at the time: “I have missed penalties in both games and must admit that it is not a good ratio. I do not want to penalise my team and, at least for the time being, I’m going to stand aside for the penalties and let other teammates get on with it.
“When I return to my club, I will continue to work hard to improve on this aspect.”
He stood by his word, returning to penalty duties during the qualifiers for this tournament and scoring one against Guinea Bissau – one of two goals he managed.
But Mané will need to do more than just score for his country, for with the absence of Krepin Diatta (knee injury), and Ismaila Sarr (also injured), a lot more of the creative burden will fall on the Liverpool man.
In the qualifiers, Cisse gave Mané a free role behind the striker, which saw the former Southampton man drop into deeper areas to create space and goal-scoring opportunities.
Some have been critical of Mané’s output at club level this season, but his underlying numbers are more impressive than last season for both expected goals and expected assists. He’s averaged 0.48 xG per 90 (up from 0.43 in 2020-21) and 0.16 xA (up from 0.15 in 2020-21) in competitive action for Liverpool this season, with his passes having a total of 3.7 xA overall – which would suggest his teammates’ finishing is not helping his actual assist tally.
His shot conversion is just above last season (14.3% vs. 13.3%) but 2020-21 was the lowest it had been at Liverpool in a competitive campaign.
Who Carries Senegal’s Goalscoring Burden?
Thankfully for them, attacking talent is, on paper at least, the least of the Lions’ worries.
Cisse’s AFCON squad features some prominent forwards in Europe. Throughout the qualifiers, Cisse tried various options including Habib Diallo (Strasbourg), Famara Diedhiou (Alanyaspor), and Villarreal’s Boulaye Dia. All three have been on target for country in the past year and will provide a selection headache for Cisse.
Dia has contributed 10 goal involvements (five goals, five assists) in 22 appearances for the Yellow Submarines in 2021-22 so far, while Diedhiou has eight goals in 18 competitive games for Alanyaspor this season.
Diallo, who had limited minutes in the AFCON qualifiers, could be the wildcard. The 26-year-old has scored eight Ligue 1 goals for Strasbourg this season, despite only playing 993 minutes. This is just one less than the whole of last season in the same competition.
Diallo has averaged a goal every 124 minutes in Ligue 1 this season, while his non-penalty xG per 90 ratio of 0.66 is the best of any player to have played 500+ minutes in the competition this season – ahead of Kylian Mbappe’s 0.58 per 90.
Syli Nationale Expected to Share Automatic Qualification with Senegal
What do you do when your country’s head of state warns your team to bring the AFCON trophy, or else refund all monies paid for your trip to Cameroon?
It’s been widely reported that the leader of Guinea’s newly-installed military government issued this threat before the team emplaned for the competition. Ominous, eh?
According to the Opta tournament projections, Guinea have an 82% chance of qualifying from the group, only lower than Senegal’s 94.9% – not a bad start to build on if they want to go all the way.
A shambolic World Cup qualification campaign is all the motivation this team need to do better in the AFCON. They failed to pick up a win and for that, Didier Six was sacked as coach after three games into the journey.
His deputy, Kaba Diawara, took over but he is also without a victory heading into the AFCON.
Making their 13th appearance at the tournament, the team – whose nickname translates as the National Elephants, will be looking to better their round of 16 exit in 2019.
Liverpool’s Naby Keita captains the side and is expected to play an influential role if they are to be successful in Cameroon. The midfielder, describe by former coach six as “made of glass” due to his frequent injuries, will pull the strings in the middle of the park alongside Roma’s Amadou Diawara.
Upfront, Mohammed Bayo, if he continues his early-season form, could be one of the players to watch this AFCON. Only two players have scored more goals in Ligue 1 this season than the Clermont forward (9). His nine goals mean he’s scored 45% of his side’s league total so far in 2021-22.
In goal, the experienced Aly Keita, who opted to represent Guinea in 2018, will also be an important player. The 35-year-old played his eighth successive season at Östersund in 2021 and ended the season as one of the best goalkeepers in the competition.
The Swedish-born goalkeeper may have only kept three clean sheets in 24 appearances, but he was the only one to make more than 100 saves (117). These saves were important, too – they prevented six goals from being scored based on Opta’s expected goals on target data. This was the most goals prevented by a goalkeeper in the Swedish top-flight in the 2021 season. In short, he’s decent.
The Warriors Just Want a Decent Outing
Zimbabwe and Malawi are widely expected to fight for one of the four third-best spots available in the tournament.
The last time the AFCON saw Zimbabwe’s Warriors win a game was in 2006 – only one player in the current squad was not a teenager by then. The rest of the squad were either toddlers or figuring out why their voices were now breaking.
Norman Mapeza, who had 92 caps to his name as a former national team defensive midfielder, knows even his vast experience cannot do much for the depleted squad he has. To injuries, he’s lost vital talent such as Marvelous Nakamba (Aston Villa), Marshall Munetsi (Reims), and Brendan Galloway (Plymouth). Leicester youngster
To bad luck, he’s lost the mercurial former captain Khama Billiat, who announced his retirement from international football just two months before the AFCON.
As a result, a relatively young and inexperienced Zimbabwe squad will look up to captain Knowledge Musona, who plays for Al Tai in Saudi Arabia. He is one of only six players in their squad to have ever played AFCON football, the rest being Onismor Bhasera, Teenage Hadebe, Alec Mudimu, Thabani Kamusoko and Kudakwashe Mahachi.
South Africa-based midfielder ‘Kuda’ Mahachi is set for his third straight AFCON, and he knows the scale of the task ahead. “It’s an honour for us to represent our country again. We are paying particular attention to our first game against Senegal.”
Another name to watch is Olympique Lyon forward Tino Kadewere. File him under ‘always been decent’. Before AFCON 2017, his form in the Swedish top flight led to many pundits considering him in the ‘players to watch’ columns. 21 at the time, and now 26, his versatile style means he can play deeper roles, assist in goals and pop up with the odd finish.
Expect him to be part of a Zimbabwe team that will be set up to counter-attack. Together with Musona – who comes into the tournament in good form having had three goals and two assists in his last three games before joining the Zimbabwe camp – the two form a key part of what is the faint hope of this team advancing.
Going past the group stage for the first time in their history will need focus and, not for the first time, there’s been a big shortage of that in camp. In 2019, the team had bonus rows with their football association, twice. They had a tournament to forget.
This time, with days to the tournament, it is politics that is distracting. Zimbabwe’s Sports and Recreation Commission (basically, their sports ministry) in December suspended the Football Association for alleged fraud and misconduct. This, predictably, drew the ire of Fifa, who threatened to ban the country for political interference. Authorities have been working furiously to avert a fiasco, but it doesn’t do much for team spirit.
To their credit, the team have looked prepared, arriving in Cameroon before New Year’s Eve, earlier than almost all teams in the competition. Surprisingly, however, is the fact that the Warriors named just 23 players for the tournament, when every squad is allowed 28. Overconfidence, or a sense of the reality that confronts them?
Are the Flames Going to Burn the Doubters?
If there were a team suffering the effects of a Covid-19 overshadowed preparation, it is Malawi.
“We had quite a number of players who would have made it in the 28-man squad but unfortunately Covid has ruled them out as they did not have a chance to be seen,” said coach Mario Marinica. He goes on: “But also, it was very difficult for some players as we did not have a chance to play friendly matches before making the final decision.”
So, in effect, the Flames aim to blaze a tournament they are quite unprepared for. Currently ranked 129 in the world, Malawi will be making their third appearance at the AFCON in Cameroon. The Flames are yet to ever make it past the group stage and it’s hard to see them advancing ahead of Guinea and Senegal – which is why this preview reckons a win against Zimbabwe and then hoping for a draw with one of the big two is their most likely hope.
Before Marinica was chosen to lead the Malawian technical team in December, it was headed by Meck Mwase. However, Mwase will now deputise for the 56-year-old Romanian in “this special arrangement [which] is an interim measure that is specific to the Africa Cup of Nations, only with the view to improving [the] performance of the Flames at this prestigious tournament,” per a Malawi FA statement.
Even though Mwase made history by becoming the third coach to qualify Malawi for the continental festival, his team’s performance in the World Cup qualifiers – where Malawi finished bottom of their group after winning one of six games – prompted the authorities to get external assistance.
Technical and tactical deficiencies plague this side that lacks cohesion. 56% of their AFCON squad play locally, which is not a good sign as the Malawian league is not even ranked among the best in southern Africa, let alone on the continent.
The rest of the squad are African-based, bar two – Francisco Madinga (FC Dilla Gori, Georgia) and Charles Petro (Sheriff Tirsapol, Moldova).
Gabba and Petro Are Key
Petro, at just 20, is highly regarded at home. Between 2019 and 2021, the youngster has played every minute of the Flames’ eight World Cup qualifiers, just as he featured in 98% of minutes across their AFCON qualifiers.
At club level, Tiraspol are being patient with his growth, giving him 19 minutes in their breakout Champions League campaign. Comfortable in central defense and proficient in defensive midfield, Petro is tipped to be future captain of his country.
And then there’s Gabadinho Mhango.
He is one of three forwards named in the squad, together with Khuda Muyaba and Richard Mbulu. All three play in South Africa, which is encouraging, but it will likely not be enough to make headlines. The best of the trio is Mhango of Orlando Pirates, but his story makes for interesting reading.
A player whose qualities are not in doubt, his off-pitch attitude has recently done him harm. In September, he was given a lengthy club suspension after he partied at a Pretoria bar, buying drinks worth £1200 for revelers, only to admit he had no money to pay. He’s barely played since and is banking on a good AFCON for redemption.
Mwase says of him: “We all know Gabba’s got it. He just needs a good run and he’ll show us what he did in the last few seasons again,” referring to Mhango’s league-high 14 goals scored in South Africa’s 2019 top flight season. He was widely tipped to finish as top scorer when the pandemic forced a league suspension.
The enigma that he is, Mhango wasted no time in scoring for Malawi in their 2-1 pre-AFCON friendly victory against tournament-debutants Comoros. The other goal came from Muyaba.
For wildcards, look out for two newcomers to the team: Lawrence Chaziya, “the best header of the ball in this squad” and Zebron Kalima, “the best crosser of the ball in training and has fantastic skills, even though he’s a bit short” – all according to Marinica.
That last bit about height seems to be key for the technical team, because they’ve repeated stated that squad selection was biased toward “speed, skill, height, hardworking spirit and a determination to do well.”
Looks like what we won’t get in quality, Malawi will make up for in endeavour. Bring it on.
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