Senegal are through to the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations semi-finals after fending off Benin 1-0 at the 30 June Stadium in Cairo.
There was little between the two nations in the opening 45 minutes, with Senegal dominating play but struggling to find an opening past a resolute Benin defence.
However, persistence eventually paid dividends for the Lions of Teranga as Idrissa Gana Gueye scored the opening – and only – goal of the match to secure a vital win for his nation.
It was a nervy opening quarter-final match in this latest instalment of Afcon, but who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Idrissa Gana Gueye
With Senegal dominating but struggling to unlock an exceptionally resilient Benin defence, Everton enforcer Idrissa Gana Gueye took matters into his own hands by breaking the deadlock in the 70th minute with a quite breathtaking finish.
Collecting the ball from his habitual central midfield area, the 29-year-old decided against playing a routine sidewards pass, and instead looked to seek out Merseyside contemporary Sadio Mane, sending a crisp pass forward before going on a marauding run of his own.
Mane had to hold the ball up and time the pass to perfection – he done both to world class ability. Using his physicality to shield the ball, he managed to protect it before laying it off to his compatriot, who surged into the box and unleashed an emphatic opening strike.
And he would be at it again less than 15 minutes later, charging forward on one of his energetic runs to draw a foul from Olivier Verdon, who saw red after bringing down the Everton anchorman – together with Mane, the Merseyside duo produced the moments of magic.
Loser: Mustapha Ghorbal
With the match finely balanced in the first half, Benin will feel massively aggrieved as they should have taken a slender 1-0 lead into the interval after Cebio Soukou fired home a thunderous strike past Alfred Gomis in the 44th minute. Unfortunately for Soukou, referee Mustapha Ghorbal was quick to put whistle to mouth and rule the goal out for an alleged foul from the Bochum-born attacker.
As Badou Ndiaye foolishly tried to dribble out from his own box, Soukou came rushing in with a flying slide tackle, and looked to have timed his challenge to absolute perfection before unleashing a bullet effort into the back of the net. In real time, the challenge looked clean, and upon further inspection from a slow motion replay, the video evidence confirmed initial suspicion – Benin should have been a goal to the good.
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For whatever reason, however, the Algerian match official deemed Soukou’s tackle to, not only have been a foul, but also worthy of a yellow card, as he brandished blonde in the 26-year-old’s direction, rubbing salt in the wounds with a harsh twist of double jeopardy.
With VAR now available in the competition, Ghorbal should have utilised the technology and allowed play to continue, consulting those in the backroom once the attacking phase had finished, instead he took matters into his own hands and denied Benin an opener.
Winner: Henri Saivet
With Senegal able to boast a number of lofty players with the likes of Cheikhou Kouyate and Kalidou Koulibaly on their current roster, the Lions of Teranga certainly needed a set-piece specialist capable of supplementing their aerial prowess, and they more than had that in former Newcastle United midfielder Henri Saivet.
From open play, Senegal were pretty hopeless in trying to deliver any semblance of a timely cross into the box, but from the deadball scenario, Saivet flourished, whipping in dangerous cross after dangerous cross; in total he made four key passes from his set-piece deliveries, more than any player on the pitch.
Were it not for M’Baye Niang’s strange chest-cum-shot or some wayward heading, Senegal could – and should – have easily been ahead sooner rather than later courtesy of Saivet’s scintillating deliveries.
Loser: Keita Balde
It was another underwhelming performance from the Monaco man, who had a extremely poor game for Senegal this afternoon, failing to really transmit his club form over to the international stage; in truth, he looked anything but an Inter Milan/Monaco player in the Egyptian capital.
The zenith of his mundane showing came on the stroke of half time: as the Spain-born Senegal international drifted out wide and found himself with ample space to charge into, all he had to do was time his run, but a careless saunter forward meant that when the ball eventually found his feet, he was already offside.
As Mane played a delightful cross field pass to Keita, the Monegasques forward looked to have been through on goal, but his carelessness allowed the Benin backline to push forward, and the chance went begging for Senegal.
But, it wasn’t just a laziness in that particular incident that highlighted Keita’s poor performance, as he proved wayward the entire time he was on the pitch, before Aliou Cisse decided to twist and take him off in the 65th minute – Senegal scored five minutes later and looked transformed with him off the turf.
Winner: Sadio Mane
It took a while for the Champions League winner to get going, but in the second half, the Liverpool forward was a consistent threat, running at a beleaguered Benin defence with verve and vigour, while having two goals chalked off for offside, with the latter incident ruled out by mere millimetres.
Senegal, at times, struggled to create cohesion in the final third, with their attacking trident not really forming any sort of rhythm, but upon Keita Balde’s substitution, the nation asserted an iron grip further forward and had a renewed energy.
And it was Mane’s essential attacking instincts that brought about the opening goal. As he drifted infield, Gueye picked him out to inch-perfection, and while M’Baye Niang was struggling immensely in this department to hold the ball up and bring his teammates into play, Mane thrived.
His nation needed that one moment of inspiration, and together with Gueye, the duo combined exceptionally well to bring about a fine finish – his assist had Premier League quality written all over it, as did Gueye’s strike.
Loser: Olivier Verdon
With his side in dire need of finding the net during the final 10 minutes, the last thing the Squirrels needed was to be reduced to 10 men, but that is exactly was unravelled in the Egyptian capital as the Sochaux-Montbeliard defender pulled down Gueye just on the edge of the box.
At this stage Senegal had a pretty firm grip on the match, but if this instalment of Afcon has taught us one thing, it’s that anything can happen in the dying embers, and Michel Dussuyer’s chances of progressing to the semi-finals drifted away in that very moment.