AL KHOR, Qatar, Dec 4 (Reuters) - The devastating loss of Sadio Mane to injury was something Senegal manfully recovered from in reaching the last 16 at the World Cup but it ultimately meant they could go no further.
Defeat on Sunday by England was a sobering reminder of how much Senegal missed Mane's influence as early chances he might have buried were not taken and the ‘Lions of Teranga’ tamely exited the tournament on the back of a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at the Al Bayt Stadium.
The reigning African Footballer of the Year was ruled out on the eve of the tournament with a knee injury suffered in Bundesliga action with Bayern Munich, striking what many feared would be a devastating blow to the African champions.
With Mane in their ranks, Senegal were seen as the continent’s best hopes of making a mark on the tournament after Africa saw all five representatives fail to get past the first round in Russia four years ago.
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Without their 30-year-old talismanic forward, expectations were significantly reduced.
“I said throughout the tournament his absence was a blow to us. It is tough when you lose a player like that,” said coach Aliou Cisse after Sunday’s defeat.
Senegal, who won the Africa Cup of Nations at the start of the year, needed their other international stars, defensive stalwart and captain Kalidou Koulibaly and World Goalkeeper of the Year Edouard Mendy to step up and try to fill a large void.
But Senegal’s defence was culpable as they conceded two late goals and let slip the chance of a morale-boosting draw against group favourites the Netherlands in their opening game.
It added to a foreboding sense of calamity after the first round of matches, not only for Senegal but the rest of the African teams in Qatar.
To their credit, Senegal led a resurgence by confidently beating the hosts, and Asian champions, Qatar 3-1 and then showed a dogged determination to edge Ecuador 2-1 in their last Group A game and take second place behind the Dutch.
It also sparked life into the other African campaigns, turning the tournament into something of a triumph for the continent, with Morocco joining Senegal in advancing to the last 16, while Cameroon's and Tunisia's early departures were tempered by upset wins over multiple world champions Brazil and France respectively.
Against England, however, the Mane magic was patently missing and, without him, Senegal were left wondering ‘what if’.
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