- Who: Senegal v Netherlands, Group A
- Where: Al Thumama Stadium
- When: Monday, November 21 at 16:00 GMT
- Classification: Senegal (18), Netherlands (8)
- Head-to-head record: None
Senegal and the Netherlands will head into their first World Cup match with plenty of confidence after a string of promising recent performances.
In February, the Teranga Lions clinched their first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title after beating Egypt on penalties.
The Netherlands have also enjoyed considerable success in their continental exploits, topping their Nations League group and scoring two morale-boosting wins against Benelux rivals Belgium.
Difficult accessory for both
Monday’s game will probably represent the biggest challenge in Group A for both teams, who are aiming for options against Ecuador and Qatar, ranked 44th and 50th in the world, respectively.
The match at the Al Thumama Stadium promised to pit Liverpool’s mercurial center back Virgil van Dijk against his former teammate and prolific goalscorer Sadio Mané. However, this year’s Ballon d’Or runner-up injured his leg playing for German champions Bayern Munich and was left out of the tournament, a blow to the African champions that has left fans in shock.
“We know we have lost a great leader, but I think there will be more players that will show up and we have to be ready,” defender Kalidou Koulibaly said.
Midfielder Nampalys Mendy agreed.
“We have to be prepared, ready for any eventuality, it is true that Sado’s absence is going to hurt us enormously… because he is an important player. We also have high-quality players, so we are confident in our quality and we will do everything we can to prove it.”
Even so, Micky Jnr, a soccer journalist specializing in African soccer, was confident that “this Senegalese team will come out ahead of the group.”
He hopes Senegal will take at least one point against the Netherlands, or “maybe surprise the Europeans with a win.”
At the rear, both teams have several world-class options. Van Dijk is joined by the likes of Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij and Bayern Munich’s Matthijs de Ligt for Oranje. Senegal can count on Chelsea’s Koulibaly and RB Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo.
Between the sticks, Senegal apparently have the upper hand with Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy.
Although the goalkeeper has struggled to be fit this season, his international experience far exceeds what the Netherlands has to offer. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal has yet to decide on his number one, but in the last two matches, he has handed Ajax goalkeeper Remko Pasveer his first caps at the ripe age of 39.
In midfield, the Oranje have the likes of Frenkie de Jong and striker Cody Gakpo, who continues to light up the Dutch Eredivisie with 13 goals and 15 assists in 24 games so far this season.
“It’s going to be a cautious game; I think the battle will be won in midfield,” says Jnr, who singles out Senegalese Pape Matar Sarr, a talented footballer with an “excellent work rate” as someone to watch out for.
Senegal have some interesting options in attack, such as Boulaye Dia, who is currently on loan at Serie A side Salernitana from Villareal.
However, Mané will be a big loss for Senegal, whose defense will have to deal with Memphis Depay, who seems to have recovered from injury.
“We have players who play at the highest level, the biggest clubs in the world. We have experience. We have talent. We have a good mix. But above all, we have team spirit. And I think that’s the beginning and the key to success. It’s not a guaranteed success, of course, but it’s a good way to start,” van Dijk said on Thursday, praising van Gaal’s leadership.
“We have a fantastic coach, an experienced coach,” he added.
“It’s going to be very important against the African champions and we will do everything in our power to get a good result and start our World Cup in the best possible way.”