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Senegal's Kalidou Koulibaly (right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring his side's second goal during the World Cup group A match against Ecuador at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar. Senegal won 2-1 to book their places in the last 16. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: No African side made it to the knockout stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. But Senegal booked their places in the last 16 in Qatar after an incredible tussle against Ecuador in Group A which they won 2-1.

It had started so well for the South Americans.There was great news for them ahead of kick as star man, and the World Cup’s current joint top scorer, Enner Valencia had been declared fit to play despite coming off with a knee injury late on in Friday’s 1-1 draw with the Netherlands. The 33-year-old scored twice in the 2-0 opening-night win over hosts Qatar and then grabbed the vital equaliser against the Dutch but he was forced off in both games. He’d scored 13 in 12 for Fenerbache in the league this season and was clearly a man on form.

Ecuador had their talisman on the pitch, and how Senegal wished they had theirs. But Sadio Mane had been ruled out before the start of the tournament and the Africans had looked a little toothless as a result. They were still very physical and well organized but without Mane in the side they lacked a killer instinct in front of goal. The first chance of the match fell to them but Idrissa Gueye sliced his shot wide.

Attacking play

Ecuador grew into the half. They knew they only needed a draw to reach the last 16 and could have sat back. Not a chance. Coach Gustavo Alfaro said before the match there was no prospect of them simply shutting up shop. He said they couldn’t change their style or essence. They continued to be protagonists and stuck with their exciting, attacking brand of football.

I think they have been one of the teams of the tournament in how they play. Direct and fast. They don’t mess around with the ball. Senegal approached the game in the same manner and it proved to be an end-to-end battle. They were winning their individual battles and had more of the ball early on. Gueye was playing further forward than I’d ever seen him do so before. The combative Everton midfielder was operating almost as a number 10 and was causing the Ecuador defence all sorts of problems with his probing runs and passing.

Senegal pushed again and this time to such an extent that even captain Kalidou Koulibaly had crossed the halfway line. The centre back found Ismaila Sarr who advanced but the winger’s effort was only inches past the post.

The stands inside the Khalifa International Stadium were alive with the sounds of drums and Senegal were very much playing to their beat. Ecuador were too narrow and tight in midfield and there was no out ball for them out wide. They needed more width higher up the pitch to trouble Senegal. They began knocking the ball around in attempt to tire their opponents who started the match at a furious pace but after Piero Hincapie clattered into Sarr in the box, the ref had to award a penalty to Senegal. The Watford man picked himself up, held his nerve and stroked the ball past Ecuador’s motionless goalkeeper Hernan Galinde. It was a huge goal that put the Africans on course for the Last 16.

They deserved the lead, they were the better side in this first half. Ecuador had been happy to defend but knew they had to come out in the second half and Alfaro realised that. He made a double change with Brighton’s Jeremy Sarmiento on along with Jose Cifuentes and Ecuador started the second half much better with more players in attacking positions. They work the ball through midfield out to the left where Pervis Estupinan took a touch and crossed for Michael Estrada but he could only head wide.

Back post

But then Moises Caicedo tapped in when a corner was flicked on to the back post and they drew level. At 1-1 it meant they would go through to the last 16. But would you believe it, Senegal’s skipper Koulibaly came up trumps just when they needed him. The ball fell to the man mountain following Gueye’s free-kick from the right and he buried it like a striker to not only give Senegal back the lead, but one foot back in the last 16.

It was an absolutely chaotic few minutes as the teams did the hokey-cokey. In, out, in, out. It was World Cup group stage drama at its best. Senegal held on in spite of 6 nervy minutes of injury time where a goal conceded then would have ended their tournament. Ecuador tried with all their might but were unable to get it. The young team that brought so much joy with their attacking football were inconsolable while Senegal were also in tears, but they were tears of joy.