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Senegal’s Lions find their pride

Senegal joined Netherlands in the pre-quarter finals from Group A with a 2-1 win against Ecuador at the Khalifa International Stadium here on Tuesday. Denied by a fairplay rule in Russia that saw Japan qualify for the round of 16 because they had fewer yellow cards, there would be no denying the Teranga Lions this time. On the second death anniversary of his Senegal teammate Papa Bouba Diop, it left coach African champions’ coach Aliou Cisse visibly emotional.

This is the first time since the fairytale run of 2002 when they made the quarter-finals and had stunned defending champions France in the opener through Diop’s goal that Senegal have got out of the group. Cisse was a player then. Idrissa Gueye saw a yellow card on Tuesday and will be suspended from the knockout game.

Despite beginning with a win against Qatar and holding Holland 1-1, Ecuador will go home after their first loss having finished on four points.

Senegal led through Ismaila Sarr’s 44th minute penalty but with better quality of delivery and accuracy in front of goal, could have put the match to bed by half-time. They attacked more through the right with right back Youssouf Sabaly, right side forward Iliman-Chiekh Ndiaye and Idrissa Gueye forming triangles Ecuador found difficult to deal with.

Needing a draw to advance, Ecuador began with a high line and if they were not punished soon after kick-off, it was because Gueye couldn’t keep his shot on target. It was the same with lone forward Boulaye Dia in the eighth minute. Then, Ismail Jakobs swung one for Sarr but it had too much curl and was too fast. Before that Ndiaye shot out from close.

Between those misses, Ecuador won a free-kick and Enner Valencia, who has come quite a distance from milking cows in his father’s farm, banged it into the wall and saw his attempt off the rebound blocked.

Ecuador settled down but Senegal were always in charge. On the left, Sarr was winning his duel with Angel Preciado and faced the brunt of a lot of physical challenges, among them one from behind by half-time substitute midfielder Jose Cifuentes in the 62nd minute. In the 78th minute, Sarr left Preciado trailing but not before the right back had harassed him enough to ensure the Senegalese did not get a clear shot on goal.

Playing with a dodgy knee that saw him taken off in both games, Valencia fell awkwardly after a tackle from centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly – the Senegal centre-back wore an arm band remembering Diop on his second death anniversary – and looked to be in pain. Valencia also went down in first-half stoppage time holding his left knee after pushing Sabaly and having the Senegalese’s leg planted on his. Seeing Italian referee Clement Turpin not taking drastic action Valencia got up and continued after some pushing and shoving from both sides.

But the contest stayed physical and Sarr was clattered into by centre-back Piero Hincapie leading to the penalty. Up stepped Sarr and showed he wasn’t bothered by Ecuador goalie Hernan Galindez standing still till late. As Galindez crouched and leaned to his right, he saw the ball going in the opposite direction.

Like they did against Holland, Ecuador showed they were far from finished. Caicedo equalised in the 67th minute following what looked like a training ground routine for a free kick. Hincapie swung the ball in and Felix Torres leapt highest to cushion the ball into Caicedo’s path. Ecuador celebrated by players forming kneeling in a circle beyond the byline, raising their arms and looking up.

Three minutes later Ecuador were chasing the game again. This too looked like a drill honed through the hours spent in training. The free-kick from the right was swung into the mix of bodies and redirected to Koulibaly who, making light of the awkward bounce, fired home a powerful volley. This time there would be no comebacks. Edouard Mendy getting enough hand to keep out a ball from reaching Caicedo deep in second-half stoppage time ensured that.

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