Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
No first-half touches in the Senegal penalty area. No shots of any description from open-play. No ideas, no invention, no intent. In a must-win game, Colombia were abject here across all metrics. And, yet, it is José Pekerman’s side who progress to the second round, while one of the most impressive African sides in recent memory goes home. Such is life; such is football.
Nonetheless, the wonderful organisation Aliou Cissé has engendered was on display again here. The 4-4-2 that stymied Poland was restored, ultra-compact and industrious throughout. Pekerman lost one number-10, James Rodriguez, through injury early on. But, given how deep the other, Juan Quintero, had to drop to touch the ball, space between the lines would likely not have come easy to the Real Madrid man anyway.
Quintero took only three final-third touches before the break, as Senegal’s brilliant back-four squeezed off his zone-of-influence. Colombia, instead, were forced to look for winger Juan Cuadrado, who reprised his touchline-hugging turn from the victory over Poland. Unfortunately, the Juventus winger proved far less effective on this occasion; thanks, in part, to Youssof Sabaly’s close attention.
Idrissa Gueye’s covering presence helped, too. Indeed, the central midfielder instigated Senegal’s best counterattacking chance of the half by intercepting a Cuadrado pass; after Sabaly forced the winger infield. Only one of two timely covering challenges from Davinson Sanchez prevented Sadio Mané from pulling the trigger.
The other Sanchez recovery lunge foiled Mané too, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Senegal’s star man let the side down here. Afforded space between the lines throughout the first-half, prior to Pekerman’s 4-1-4-1 switch, the Liverpool forward invariably found his momentum arrested by either Carlos Sanchez or Mateus Uribe. The latter’s engine-room energy proved particularly effective here; Uribe also regularly assisted left-back Johan Mojica with the dangerous Ismaila Sarr.
Both Mojica and right back Santiago Arias played relatively reserved games from a positional perpective. This, of course, is a testament to the counterattacking threat posed by Cissé’s side, who would have loved to isolate Colombia’s young centre-backs two-on-two against strikers Mané and M’Baye Niang. That, however, rarely happened; and when it did, Sanchez’s speed bailed his side out.
This was, therefore, not one for the neutrals, as it were. Two sides intent on keeping it tight rarely makes for an engaging spectacle. But the drama was always palpable, even after Pekerman dropped Quintero permanently deeper in the aforementioned 4-1-4-1.
That switch permanently arrested what few counterattacking chances Senegal were fashioning. But it did anything but improve Colombia as an attacking force. Indeed, their winner, another Yerry Mina header from a corner, was the South Americans’ only shot on target of the second-half; and one of only two in the entire game. None were attempted from open-play; a pretty appalling indictment of a side that needed to win.
Pekerman had Cissé to thank, the Senegal coach committing the mortal sin of making a substitution at a defensive corner-kick. Although, whether Moussa Wagué’s arrival distracted Cheikhou Kouyaté from staying with Mina is very much up for debate.
A Senegal equaliser, required to avoid elimination on disciplinary grounds, never looked likely. Mané’s poor form saw to that; the 26-year-old’s day summed up by slipping upon attempting to strike a direct free-kick goalward. With nine turnovers, only four out of nine dribbles completed, and two big chances foiled by the quicker-thinking Sanchez, Mané must carry the can here.
So, too, must Sabaly and Cheikh N’Doye, both of whom picked up the killer late bookings against Japan. Khadim N’Diaye’s goalkeeping clanger against the same opposition will also live long in the memory. The untimely Wagué substitution aside, however, their manager bears no culpability for this unfortunate elimination. To get the bigger picture so right, only to fail on such small margins, must hurt so much for Cissé. Senegal, surely, are the best side to fall at this finals’ first hurdle.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112