Senegal are once again living up to their nickname as the Lions of Teranga. Oddly tame in recent years, during which they failed to qualify for the 2010 CAF African Cup of Nations and 2010 FIFA World Cup™, they have begun to bear their claws again, devouring almost everyone in their path.
Appointed coach in December 2009, Amara Traore has given the Lions back their roar, turning their results around as the side target a place at the 2012 continental showcase. “He’s done us a lot of good,” team captain Mamadou Niang told FIFA.com recently. “He’s changed the mindset on every level and he’s brought in young players who really want to fight for the Senegal shirt. Things are going great.” Beyond the dugout, the team’s upturn in fortunes has much to do with Niang’s own form, the forward proving capable of terrorising even the meanest defence.
Niang has lost none of his sharpness since leaving Marseille for Fenerbahce last summer and, crucially, he is savouring life with the Turkish league leaders. “I’m really happy at my new club and the more time I spend here the better it gets,” he said in December. The statistics back up that analysis, with Niang second in the Turkish scoring charts on 14 goals and leading the way in African Cup of Nations qualifying with five.
Nor is Niang the only Senegalese forward making waves in Europe this season. Moussa Sow is currently the most prolific marksman in France thanks to his 18 strikes for Lille, Copenhagen’s Dame N’Doye is joint top scorer in Denmark with 14 and Papiss Cisse has registered 18 times for Freiburg to leave him second only to Mario Gomez in the Bundesliga standings. Elsewhere, Demba Ba’s four goals in five games have helped West Ham United climb out of the relegation zone in England and the likes of Souleymane Camara (Montpellier), Issiar Dia (Fenerbahce) and Diomansy Kamara (Leicester City) have also caught the eye.
One man impressed with the form of Senegal’s front men is Souleymane Diawara, a defensive stalwart for both the Lions and Marseille. “All the forwards are talented and they’re all in such great form that I don’t know who should be starting,” he said. “Mamad [Niang] has more experience and can do a lot of other things than just score, whereas Moussa Sow and Papiss Cisse are thoroughbred finishers, traditional No9s who are there to score and nothing else, and who can win us a match by putting the ball in the net at the right moment even if they’ve been quiet the whole game.”
What is undeniable is that the various Lions strikers have found fertile hunting ground the length and breadth of Europe this term. As for who will find their form rewarded in the international realm, Sow believes the law of the jungle will decide. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s great that it’s happened like this,” he told FIFA.com. “It’s true that Papiss, Dame, Mamadou and others have had super seasons as well. The one thing that stands out for me is that it’s good for the Senegal team. The way things are, competition for places with the national team is intense. There’s a lot of forwards wanting to start and we’ll all have to be at our very best to win a place.”
The task of choosing the right combination will fall to Traore, but the coach has barely put a foot wrong since he took over the role. Having kicked off with a 2-0 defeat of Greece in his first game, he has now overseen six wins in eight games, including a 3-0 success against Guinea last time out and a record 7-0 rout of Mauritius that strengthened Senegal’s hold on top spot in qualifying Group E for the 2012 African Cup of Nations. Traore’s men find themselves in a particularly tricky section too, with Cameroon and Congo DR also hoping to block their path to the finals.
Two points back in second, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon lie next in wait for Senegal, with the two teams due to lock horns at the Stade Leopold Senghor in Dakar this Saturday. “They have to be the favourites at the moment, given what they’ve done in the last few years, such as reaching the last World Cup and African Cup of Nations, not to mention their FIFA ranking,” said Traore. “But we have a team with a defined playing style, organisation and a plan. A great team has to be able to contain an opponent whoever they have in their line-up. Cameroon have a great player who we respect a lot for everything he’s done for African football, but even if they have Samuel Eto’o, we have great strikers based pretty much all around the world.”
“Things are going well at the moment because our forwards are in great shape and we’re also solid at the back,” added Diawara. “In theory, we’ve got everything it takes to succeed, but forget figures and statistics – it’s on the pitch that we need to show it.” With rival lions intent on defending their territory in the Senegalese capital this weekend, Diawara and Co now need to prove they are the true kings of the jungle.