Senegal’s Africa Cup of Nations title defence begins at Stade Charles Konan Banny in Yamoussoukro this afternoon against their neighbours Gambia, who will be plotting a major upset as they hope to build on the positivity gleaned from their first ever Afcon appearance two years ago.
The Lions of Teranga had almost become perennial underachievers at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this century; despite producing an enviable amount of talent, it took them 17 years to reach another final after losing on penalties to Cameroon in their first ever appearance in the title match in 2002.
In fact, 2006 aside, Senegal didn’t even reach the semi-finals in that span. Defeat to Algeria in the 2019 final may not have been the outcome they’d hoped for, but it was a big step, and two years ago they finally ended their long wait to lift the trophy by beating Egypt on penalties.
Now, they’re looking to do it all again after cruising through qualifying Group L ahead of Mozambique, Benin and Rwanda. They went unbeaten in that section, winning 14 points from their six games, with their two draws coming against Benin and Rwanda in the final two games after already confirming their qualification.
Gambia, on the other hand, the smallest country in West Africa and one that is completely surrounded by Senegal bar its coast, don’t have a particularly extensive Afcon history but they’ve made real strides in youth development since the turn of the century and are beginning to reap the rewards with talented played like Yankuba Minteh now coming through.
The last Afcon saw Gambia make their first ever appearance at the tournament and they defied the odds to go as far as the quarter-finals. A 2-0 defeat to Cameroon, for whom Karl Toko Ekambi scored a brace, ended their fairytale run, but it was a commendable effort that highlighted their progress in the world of international football.
They reached Afcon 2023 after coming through the preliminary qualification phase and then finishing as runners-up to Mali in qualifying Group G above Congo and South Sudan. They won 10 points from their six games but finished with neutral goal difference, their qualification run characterised by narrow results such as the 3-2 win over South Sudan that was secured thanks to a 96th-minute winner from Hamza Barry.
Gambia’s spot in Ivory Coast was confirmed on 10 September 2023 – only Cameroon and Namibia qualified later.
As mentioned, this will only be Gambia’s second appearance at the Africa Cup of Nations; they didn’t cross paths with Senegal two years ago, instead coming up against Mauritania, Mali, Tunisia, Guinea and Cameroon, so this contest will be the first ever between the two neighbours at the Afcon.
This will be their first official meeting in any competition at senior level since the 2016 CAF African Nations Championship CHAN preliminary round in 2015, with Senegal winning both legs of their tie (4-1 on aggregate).
However, teams competing in the African Nations Championship can only field players from their national league competitions, meaning the competition carries little significance for many in comparison to the AFCON.
o Senegal are huge favourites for this Afcon Group C match, with the Opta supercomputer giving them a 65.7% probability of starting their title defence with a win.
o This will be the first encounter between Senegal and Gambia at the CAF Africa Cup of Nations. Excluding the African Nations Championship, Senegal and Gambia last faced each other in the qualifiers for the 2010 Fifa World Cup: both games ended in draws (0-0; 1-1).
o Senegal are making their 17th appearance at the Afcon. They will be aiming to win back-to-back Afcon tournaments for the first time since Egypt’s three-peat from 2006 to 2010, although no Afcon defending champion has progressed further than the round of 16 in the last six editions of the tournament.
o Senegal have won their opening game in each of the last four Africa Cup of Nations (vs Ghana in 2015, vs Tunisia in 2017, vs Tanzania in 2019, vs Zimbabwe in 2022).
o Since 2017, Senegal have kept more clean sheets than any other team in the Afcon (13 in 18 matches).
o This is Gambia’s second appearance at the Afcon. They reached the quarter-finals on their debut in the 2021 edition, eventually losing 2-0 to Cameroon.
o Just like in the 2021 edition, Gambia were the only team to make it through both the preliminary round and group stage of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers, beating Chad in the preliminaries and finishing second to Mali in the group phase.
o Despite reaching the quarter finals in Afcon 2021, Gambia never scored more than one goal in their five matches (W3 D1 L1). All three of their victories were by a 1-0 scoreline.
o Sadio Mané has scored or assisted 48% of Senegal’s goals over the last three Afcons (8 goals, 3 assists). He’s also had 97 touches in the opposition box (5.4 per game) and completed 57 dribbles (3.2 per game) since his debut in the competition in 2015, more than any other player over that period.
o This is Aliou Cissé’s fourth consecutive Afcon as Senegal head coach – under his leadership, the Lions of Teranga have been quarter-finalists in 2017, beaten finalists in 2019 and champions in 2022. Senegal have also won more games (11) and kept more clean sheets (13) at Afcon than any other team during the same period.
o Musa Barrow was directly involved in all four of Gambia’s goals at the 2021 Afcon, scoring twice and assisting the other two.
Other Fixtures today:
Cameroon vs Guinea – 17hrs
Group B: Algeria vs Angola – 20 20 hrs