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2023 Africa Cup of Nations Preview: Group C

In the third entry in our preview of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations we take a close look at Group C, widely regarded as the “Group of Death” in this edition. Defending champions Senegal headline the group and will be the favorites but the Lions of Teranga must be cautious with plenty of talent in the Guinea and Gambia squads as well as traditional African powerhouse Cameroon. Read more on all four teams below and which players to watch:

Senegal

Resumé

FIFA Ranking: 20

CAF Ranking: 2

Nickname: Lions de la Téranga (The Lions of Teranga)

Previous Appearances: 16

Best Finish: Champions (2021)

Manager

Aliou Cissé

A shining example of how an African coach can lift the national team of his country to its highest level, Cissé signed on as the manager of the Lions of Teranga in March 2015 and continues to raise the bar higher and higher for Senegalese football. A runner-up finish in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations was followed by the title in the 2021 edition and a Round of 16 finish at the 2022 FIFA World Cup as well as an attention grabbing 4-2 friendly victory over Brazil. The former Paris Saint-Germain, Birmingham City and Portsmouth player continues to form an excellent squad with players developed in Senegal as well as dual national players recruited which further strengthen his team.

2023 AFCON Squad

Key Players

Sadio Mané
Club: Al-Nassr (KSA)
Position: Winger/Forward

Much has changed in the Senegalese superstar’s club career since winning his first Africa Cup of Nations trophy but his performances for Senegal have not been affected. An underwhelming move to Bayern Munich from Liverpool was followed by another big money move to Saudi football where Mané now plays regularly with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr. The 31-year-old still shows a high level of motivation when playing for his country and after accumulating eleven goals in fourteen competitive matches since the 2021 AFCON, there is no reason to believe he will slow down on the biggest stage of African football.

Kalidou Koulibaly
Club: Al-Hilal (KSA)
Position: Central Defense

The powerful central defender joined his fellow national team star Mané in the great rush of big money moves to Saudi football and is excelling with the current Saudi Pro League leaders with only nine goals conceded in eighteen matches. The 32-year-old is an excellent passer and the anchor of a strong Senegalese defense that also features dual national left back Ismail Jakobs and 2021 Best FIFA Men’s Goalkeeper Édouard Mendy. This will be the fourth Africa Cup of Nations tournament for the French-born defender and the captain is in good form for both club and country.

Pape Matar Sarr
Club: Tottenham Hotspur (ENG)
Position: Central Midfield/Attacking Midfield

The 21-year-old creative midfielder is continuing a gradual rise in his career after being tipped for great success following a big money move from FC Metz to English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. It is a similar story in the Senegal team for Sarr who is earning the trust of head coach Cissé and gaining more responsibility in a Lions of Teranga side that has plenty of industry but limited playmaking options in the center of the midfield. Let’s see if Sarr can take another big step forward and make the Senegalese attack more complete in Ivory Coast.

Other Players to Watch

Illman Ndiaye- A rapid rise to prominence in the English second tier with Sheffield United catapulted the 23-year-old into the discussion with Senegal and it appears that Cissé enjoys the versatility of the forward. Players like Habib Diallo, Nicolas Jackson and Boulaye Dia are in the discussion to lead the forward line for Senegal but none have been convincing, leaving a bit of a mystery as to who will be the central attacking presence in a Senegalese attack which has immense quality on the flanks.

Édouard Mendy- The Goalkeeper came up with strong performances to help Senegal win the last edition of the Africa Cup of Nations and he escaped a difficult situation at English club Chelsea to the riches of Saudi football where he is doing well with Al-Ahli. With Mendy behind a strong defense, Senegal have an excellent foundation that allows them to succeed during the more challenging moments they will experience in the knockout stages.

Krépin Diatta- An intriguing player who missed out on the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations due to a long-term injury, the 24-year-old Monaco player is an option who Cissé likes and is eager to find a role for. The coach continues to experiment with his formation and it appears that Diatta, normally an attacking player, may operate as a right sided defender or wing-back in Ivory Coast. Wherever he plays, Diatta is a consistent player who provides versatility.

Evaluation

Goalkeeper:
Defense:
Midfield:
Attack:

The Gambia

Resumé

FIFA Ranking: 126

CAF Ranking: 35

Nickname: The Scorpions

Previous Appearances: 1

Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2021)

Manager

Tom Saintfiet

The Belgian has managed national teams in four different FIFA sub-confederations including Asia (Qatar U-17, Yemen and Bangladesh), North America (Trinidad & Tobago) and Europe (Malta) but his greatest successes have come in African football and his spell with The Gambia has seen remarkable accomplishments with a nation whose footballing reputation continues to rise swiftly. After achieving a surprise qualification for their first ever Africa Cup of Nations, The Scorpions performed admirably to reach the quarterfinals where they fell to 2021 host nation Cameroon. Due to the fact that their FIFA ranking remains low, once again the odds are against the West African nation in a very difficult Group C but Senegal, Guinea and Cameroon have no excuses if they underestimate this team led by a manager who is more than capable.

2023 AFCON Squad

Key Players

Musa Barrow
Club- Al-Taawoun (KSA)
Position- Attacking Midfield/Forward

Yet another African star who made a big money move to the Saudi Pro League for the 2023-24 season, Barrow enjoyed an excellent spell in Italy’s Serie A with Atalanta and Bologna before shining as Gambia’s star attacker at the 2021 AFCON. A wide player with plenty of creativity and no fear of attacking defenders on the dribble, the 25-year-old provided two goals and two assists at the last edition and gives the Gambian side an edge because of his ability to be deadly on set pieces. With Ablie Jallow and Alieu Fadera also providing threats from the wing, Barrow could line up as a central playmaker with more freedom to drift and find the ball in Ivory Coast.

Omar Colley
Club: Beşiktaş (TUR)
Position: Central Defense

The captain of The Scorpions and current Besiktas central defender is well known in European club football after over ten years on the continent, rising from competing in Finnish and Swedish football to Italy’s Serie A and now a top club in Turkey. The 31-year-old is composed on the ball and brings consistency and stability to his national team. The Gambian defense has had some issues keeping the goals out lately but coach Saintfiet will lean on Colley to keep the team focused on the big stage.

Assan Ceesay
Club: Damac (KSA)
Position: Striker

Which version of Gambia’s all-time leading goal scorer will show up in Ivory Coast? Ceesay’s goals were critical to his nation’s first AFCON qualification in 2021 but the 29-year-old went silent at the finals with zero goals in four matches. Ever since his breakout season in European club football where he contributed twenty goals and eleven assists for Swiss Super League club FC Zürich during the 2021-22 season, it has been streaky at best and underwhelming at the worst from Ceesay and the rangy striker will be under the microscope from Gambian supporters who need him to produce his best for The Scorpions to avoid a group stage elimination.

Other Players to Watch

Ebrima Darboe- After a long-term knee injury left him without any playing time in the 2022-23 season, the talented central midfielder is getting back to fitness at Austrian Bundesliga club LASK Linz on loan from Italian Serie A side AS Roma. The heart of the Gambian midfield is where the biggest conce