Aliou Cisse vowed Senegal “will leave our mark” at the World Cup as they look to extend their perfect opening-game record at the tournament when they face the Netherlands.
The reigning African champions have won their previous two openers – a shock 1-0 win over then-world champions France in 2002 and a 2-1 victory against Poland in 2018.
Senegal reached the quarter-finals 20 years ago, but they were eliminated in the group stage in the most recent edition, and Cisse is hoping for a different outcome this time.
“The aim is to get out of this group,” he told reporters.
“We will leave our mark. People are already looking ahead to the last 16, the quarter-finals, but we will be taking it a game at a time.
“We’re not getting carried away. It’s up to us to fully prepare ourselves and to do so wisely. We were knocked out of the last World Cup after just three games.”
Senegal defeated Egypt in February to win their first Africa Cup of Nations title, before beating the same side the following month in a World Cup qualifying play-off to reach Qatar 2022.
Cisse’s side are ranked 18th in the world – 10 places behind the Netherlands – and are without star man Sadio Mane in these finals due to injury.
Senegal may have a perfect opening-game record, but the Netherlands are unbeaten in their past eight curtain-raising matches, winning six of those.
The Dutch are back on the world stage after failing to qualify for Russia 2018, with veteran boss Louis van Gaal now in his third spell in charge.
Van Gaal, who will step aside at the end of the tournament, admits his side will need more than just talent to go all the way in Qatar and lift the trophy for the first time.
“I don’t believe we have the best players on earth in our team,” he said. “But I believe in team building and in tactics. I believe we can go far.
“But we also need luck – that is also important. Because of that and because I believe in imagination, we could be the world champion at the end of the tournament.”
Monday’s Group A contest at Al Thumama Stadium will mark the first time Senegal and three-time World Cup runners-up Netherlands have met.
The Netherlands are unbeaten in four matches against African opposition in the finals, while Senegal have won two and drawn one against European sides in the group stage.
Players to Watch
Senegal: Boulaye Dia
Losing Mane to injury just before the tournament was a cruel blow for Senegal, the forward having been directly involved in 12 of their past 25 goals in major tournaments.
It will now be down to others to step up and fill the void, such as Salernitana forward Boulaye Dia, who has been in good form at club level this campaign.
Dia has six goals in 14 Serie A matches across 2022-23 so far – a tally only five others can better – and has been directly involved in eight overall for a mid-table Italian club.
Memphis Depay was the Netherlands’ star man on the road to Qatar with 12 goals and six assists – those 18 direct goal involvements the most of any player in UEFA qualifying – but he has been ruled out of the Senegal match.
Van Gaal has a number of other options in attack, however, with Bergwijn one of them.
The Ajax winger has eight goals and three assists in 14 Eredivisie matches this campaign, and six goals in his past nine appearances for his country, making him one Van Gaal can rely upon.
The Netherlands have won 11 of their past 14 matches at the World Cup, penalty shootouts excluded, with their most recent group-stage loss coming in 1994 against Belgium.
Senegal are tricky first opponents for the Dutch, but our supercomputer’s prediction model has given the Netherlands a 59.2% chance of taking all three points in Al Thumama.
The prediction model gives Senegal a 17% chance of victory, while a draw is rated at 23.8%.
England vs Iran 1pm
Most people may assume England’s World Cup opener against Iran will be a relatively routine one.
The Three Lions reached the semi-finals in 2018 before making it all the way to the final of last year’s rearranged Euro 2020 tournament, and breezed through qualifying for Qatar 2022 with the best goal difference in the group stage of European qualifiers, scoring 39 and conceding only three.
Confidence will be high that Gareth Southgate’s team can get going with three points, but a potentially tricky obstacle stands in their way on Monday.
Iran had an impressive qualifying campaign of their own, winning eight of 10 games in the third round of Asian qualifying and conceding just four goals.
They also sit 20th in the latest FIFA rankings, putting them above the likes of Serbia, Morocco and Poland.
Far from ideal as part of their preparations was a change of head coach just two months before the World Cup, with Dragan Skocic surprisingly removed and replaced by Carlos Queiroz to lead Team Melli in Qatar, shortly after he had guided Egypt to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year.
This will be Queiroz’s fourth consecutive World Cup as a head coach – the longest ongoing run – and third in a row in charge of Iran after taking over for a second spell.
Iran lost 2-0 to Tunisia in a behind-closed-doors friendly on Wednesday, but Queiroz felt it allowed his team to be better prepared for England.
“Of course, the result is not good,” he said. “We don’t like to concede goals, we don’t like to lose but [there are things]we need to correct.
“We had the best opportunities in the game before the penalty, we missed a few chances to score but the most important is the conclusions that we need to make in order to prepare for England.”
Iran are one of 20 teams to have featured at each of the last two World Cups in 2014 and 2018 – of those teams, they have had the fewest shots (47), the fewest shots on target (10) and scored the fewest goals (three) in the group stages across those two tournaments combined.
Meanwhile, England’s Eric Dier is not concerned about the high temperatures in Qatar despite the time of year, with the game kicking off at 4pm local time.
“I don’t know what kind of impact it will have,” he said at a press conference on Saturday. “I’ve never experienced it before, so it’s going to be a first.
“This is normally a tournament which is played in the summer. In Russia [in 2018]it was hot. I wasn’t there but during the Euros in England it was hot, so I think we’re ready for that and we’re playing in the same conditions as our opposition, so it’s the same for everyone.”
England are the only European team to have reached the semi-finals in each of the last two major tournaments, and will be hoping to start on course for another strong showing at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Players to Watch
England: Harry Kane
England’s captain has understandably been integral to their last two runs in the World Cup and European Championship, winning the golden boot at the last FIFA showpiece in 2018, where five of his six goals in Russia came in the group stage.
Kane was also joint-top scorer in European qualifying for this World Cup (12, level with Memphis Depay), and his shot conversion rate of 36.4% was the highest of any player who scored at least six goals.
The consensus seems to be that Sardar Azmoun will be the one for England to keep an eye on, which is fair enough given his 40 goals in 63 games for his country to date, though his lack of goals and game time at club level could cost him sharpness, having scored just once in 22 appearances for Bayer Leverkusen since joining in January.
On the other hand, his international strike partner Taremi has 13 goals in 19 games for Porto this season, including five in the Champions League. Overall, across the Portuguese Primeira Liga since 2019-20, the Iranian has scored 60 goals in 109 games across spells with Rio Ave and Porto – 16 more than any other player in the competition over that period.
Despite only playing six times, no Iran player was involved in more goals during the third round of Asian World Cup qualifying than Taremi (four goals, two assists).
Despite Iran probably being stronger than many anticipate, England are still justifiably heavy favourites.
According to our supercomputer’s prediction model, the Three Lions have a 72.2% chance of opening with a win, while the draw is rated at 18.1%.
It would be a moment to remember should Iran pull off an upset, but Queiroz’s men have just a 9.7% chance of victory.