Senegal coach Aliou Cisse played down his team’s billing as Africa Cup of Nations title favourites Saturday as they prepare to face Tanzania in their opening match without suspended star forward Sadio Mane.
“Favourites are the teams who have won. Senegal have never won the Cup of Nations. Egypt have seven times. But we know our strengths and we are genuine challengers,” said Cisse, whose side is the highest-ranked in Africa, at 22 in the world.
Senegal performed admirably at the 2018 World Cup, missing out on a place in the knockout stages by the thinnest of margins, and head into the competition in Egypt as the leading rivals to the host nation.
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“Our recent results show that Senegal is making progress. But the statistics don’t lead to victories. France were not top of the FIFA rankings and they were world champions,” said Cisse, who captained Senegal to the 2002 Cup of Nations final.
With a team built around Liverpool’s Mane in attack and defensive rock Kalidou Koulibaly, the Senegalese undoubtedly have the potential to go beyond the quarter-final stage they reached in 2017, when they lost on penalties to eventual champions Cameroon.
“To get to the semi-finals would be normal for this team, seeing our progression. Each Senegal outing is a step forward. That needs to be backed up during this Cup of Nations or it’s going to be difficult,” said former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Cisse.
Ahead of a blockbuster clash with Algeria in their second match, Senegal begin their campaign against Tanzania on Sunday when they will be without Mane, who is serving a one-match ban picked up during qualifying.
“We would have preferred to have him. He’s our best player but we have players to cover his absence,” said captain Cheikhou Kouyate.