Senegal could not replace Sadio Mane at the World Cup , and if that much was not already clear it has now been emphatically underlined. As Senegal and the Netherlands were dragged into a match that cried out for a moment of individual inspiration, the Lions of Teranga were missing the source of theirs. This was a chance for Senegal against a Netherlands side who failed to impress and live up to its promise, but the opening closed as 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 is a pain that can only be felt by Senegal in Qatar. "He is our best player, the leader in that respect,” said their manager Aliou Cisse, as the news sunk in that the country’s talisman, record goalscorer, and the hero of the most significant moment of their football history would play no part due to injury. It was the cruellest of blows ahead of a tournament where Senegal, the champions of Africa, dreamed of breaking new ground. Mane’s injury made that task harder, and it’s even more improbable now.
Cisse, after all, admitted that Senegal built their team around Mane, as many an international manager would. Mane’s absence took away not only 34 international goals, leaving the next highest in the squad as a tally of 10, but led to a recalibration of their entire approach. “When you talk about the morale, of course it affects you,” Cisse said. “We are going to have to work even harder as a team without him.”
Senegal lived up to Cisse’s promise, but they were unable to offer much else despite the problems they caused the Dutch. What Senegal could do in their opening game was doubling their efforts, committing to Cisse’s adjusted plans, and playing with the confidence and assurance of a team who learned how to be winners earlier this year when they defeated Egypt on penalties to clinch the Africa Cup of Nations.
It could only take them so far. Perhaps this is not the finest Dutch vintage, and their recent results in the Nations League have clouded the very clear gaps in Louis van Gaal’s squad. In spells, Senegal were able to not only match the Netherlands but cause them considerable difficulties. They may not have had Mane on the left wing but Ismaila Sarr made a decent impression as he targetted Matthijs de Ligt, who spent the majority of the first half being dragged into the channels and, like a fish out of water, gasping for air.
For a while, it caused some discomfort in the Netherlands defence. Krepin Diatta asked similar questions of Nathan Ake and overall Senegal found joy by stretching and pulling the Netherlands wide while filling the central spaces with runs from Idrissa Gueye and Nampalys Mendy.
Clearly, though, Mane leaves behind a void that for Senegal that no player or system or approach can fill. After a first half that was open and showed promise of the first back-and-forth encounter of this World Cup, both Senegal and the Netherlands were dragged down by a sense of not wanting to lose rather than doing anything to win. There was instead an absence of quality, which affected both sides but bit Senegal harder.
While Mane’s absence robbed Senegal of their leading attacking player, it could be said that for the Netherlands their problem was they did not have one in the first place. With Memphis Depay limited by injury, Vincent Jansen and Steven Bergwijn was an uninspired and ineffective front-line. Gakpo was left looking rather lost in his deployment as a No 10 in behind.
Netherlands had no one to hit, no one to take charge of their attacks, until Frenkie de Jong picked out Gakpo with a cross behind the last line, with Mendy left looking exposed as he came for the cross. Neither, more significantly, did Senegal. Falling behind did not inspire Cisse’s side and Mendy was caught for the second time as he parried Depay’s tame shot into Davy Klaassen’s path. By then, Senegal had missed their chance. Perhaps it already went when Mane’s hopes of playing in the World Cup were taken away, too.