Can Senegal replicate their 2002 World Cup heroics in the Russia showpiece?
Senegal have a special place in World Cup folklore after their heroics in 2002 saw them reach the quarterfinals‚ where they were unlucky to lose to Turkey in extra-time.
That side had the likes of current coach Aliou Cissé‚ Henri Camara‚ El Hadji Diouf‚ Papa Bouba Diop and goalkeeper Tony Sylva‚ and captured the imagination of the world under coach Bruno Metsu‚ the Frenchman who sadly passed away aged 59 in 2013.
It remains‚ up until now‚ Senegal’s only ever appearance at the World Cup and it has been something of a mystery why it has taken them 16 years to return given the enormous talent in the country.
But Class of 2018 could well replicate that as they have a side packed with players from Europe’s elite leagues‚ and compete in a Group H that presents a good opportunity for progression.
Senegal open their campaign against Poland on Tuesday‚ before a clash with Japan on June 24 and a final pool match against Colombia on June 28.
The South Americans present a significant challenge‚ but Poland and Japan should be beatable as far as Senegal are concerned.
South African fans should know all about the Lions of Teranga as the West Africans beat Bafana Bafana twice in their qualification pool‚ after the original match‚ a 2-1 win for South Africa‚ was forced to be replayed following the cheating of Ghana referee Joseph Lamptey.
The majority of the squad play in England‚ France and Italy‚ with Everton’s Idrissa Gueye anchoring the midfield‚ along with captain Cheikhou Kouyaté from West Ham and Stoke City’s Badou Ndiaye.
Up front there is plenty of menace‚ not least one of the leading forwards in Europe in Liverpool’s Sadio Mane‚ as well as the experienced Mame Biram Diouf.
Moussa Konaté‚ a teammate of Bongani Zungu at Amiens in France is one to watch‚ while there is also the experience of Moussa Sow from Bursaspor in Turkey.
The defence is‚ perhaps‚ less accomplished and they will rely heavily on centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly from Italian side Napoli and Anderlecht’s Kara Mbodji.
Khadim N'Diaye‚ who Mamelodi Sundowns faced last month in the African Champions League when they played Horoya from Guinea‚ is the most experienced goalkeeper in the squad and also the only African-based player.
“We are always dreaming‚” Cisse told reporters.
“I think we should start small‚ dream big and think big for the World Cup.
"But do not get carried away. It should not be that people put us in a favourite position only because Senegal was a quarterfinalist at the 2002 World Cup.
“It would be a big mistake on our part [to be over-confident].
"Having players at top clubs in Europe does not mean a great national team. Otherwise Herve Renard would not have won the Afcon with Zambia [in 2012].”
Senegal’s form of late has been patchy.
Since beating Bafana in back-to-back matches in November 2017‚ they have drawn with Uzbekistan‚ Bosnia-Herzegovina and minnows Luxembourg‚ before a 2-1 loss to Croatia.
They did receive a timely boost to their confidence on Monday when the side beat South Korea 2-0 in their final warm-up match‚ an own goal and a penalty from Konaté sealing the win.