- Who: Senegal – Netherlands, Group A
- Where: Al Thumama Stadium
- When: Monday 21 November at 16:00 GMT
- Ranking: Senegal (18), Netherlands (8)
- Head-to-head record: none
Senegal and the Netherlands go into their first World Cup match with confidence after a string of promising performances of late.
In February, the Teranga Lions secured their first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title after beating Egypt on penalties.
The Netherlands also enjoyed notable success in their continental exploits, topping their Nations League group and notching two morale-boosting victories over Benelux rivals Belgium.
Tough game for both
Monday’s game is likely to present the biggest challenge in Group A for both teams as they assess their chances against Ecuador and Qatar, who are ranked 44th and 50th in the world respectively.
The match at Al Thumama had promised Liverpool’s moody centre-back Virgil van Dijk would take on former team-mate and prolific goalscorer Sadio Mané. However, this year’s Ballon d’Or runners-up sustained a leg injury while playing for German champions Bayern Munich and were ruled out of the tournament, a blow to the African champions who have shocked their supporters.
“We know we’ve lost a great leader but I think there will be more players to show and we have to be ready,” said defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
Midfielder Nampalys Mendy agreed.
“We have to be ready, ready for any eventuality, it’s true that Sado’s absence will hurt us enormously… because he’s an important player. We also have great quality players, so we’re confident in our quality and we’ll do everything we can to show that.”
Still, Micky Jnr, a football journalist specializing in African football, expressed confidence that “this Senegalese side will emerge from the group”.
He expects Senegal to at least get a point against the Netherlands or “maybe surprise the Europeans with a win”.
The fight in midfield
At the back, both teams offer several world-class options. Van Dijk will be joined by Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij and Bayern Munich’s Matthijs de Ligt for the Oranje. Senegal can count on Chelsea’s Koulibaly and RB Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo.
Meanwhile, Senegal appear to have the upper hand with Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy.
Although the goalkeeper has struggled for form this season, his international experience far outweighs what the Netherlands have to offer. Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal is yet to decide on his number one, but in the last two games he gave Ajax goalkeeper Remko Pasveer his first caps at the age of 39.
In midfield, the Oranje boast the likes of Frenkie de Jong and the prolific Cody Gakpo, who continues to shine in the Dutch Eredivisie with 13 goals and 15 assists in 24 games so far this season.
“It’s going to be a low-key game; I think the battle will be won in midfield,” says Jnr, who singles out Senegal’s Pape Matar Sarr, a talented footballer with “excellent work performance,” as someone to watch out for.
Senegal have some exciting options up front like Boulaye Dia, who is currently on loan from Villareal to Serie A’s Salernitana.
However, Mané is a huge loss for Senegal and increases the Netherlands’ chances.
“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 first and foremost we have team spirit. And I think that’s the beginning and the key to success. That’s not a guaranteed success, of course, but it’s a good start,” said van Dijk on Thursday, also praising van Gaal’s leadership.
“We have a fantastic manager, an experienced manager,” he added.
“It will be a really big game against the African champions and we will do everything in our power to hopefully get a good result and start our World Cup in the best possible way.”
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