England v Senegal preview: Slick Three Lions to book their place in World Cup quarter-finals by overcoming resilient rivals

Focused England will get the job done against the Kings of Africa, but the pressure of knockout football presents a new challenge to overcome tonight, kick-off at 7pm, writes Rachel Roberts.

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Cruising through a home nations clash against Wales with a 3-0 win, England sealed their spot at the top of Group B, celebrating with milkshakes and setting up this knockout tie against Senegal in the process. Against familiar rivals, England rediscovered their slick style of play, and will need to continue in this confident form to break down their spirited opposition at the Al Bayt stadium tonight.

Assessment of the Three Lions’ group stage performances show a team who are able to conjure a lethal attack force. With nine goals scored so far, the firepower in this team presents a threat to any opposition. And yet still none from Harry Kane — the skipper has turned provider, and with three assists to his name so far, no other player in the competition has recorded more.

But it was against the spritely USA team where England stalled, held to a 0-0 draw. Playing it safe for a draw stifled England to a lethargic performance, and now at the knockout stages of the competition, Southgate cannot allow his team to be hindered by fear of losing.

For the England manager, expectations at Qatar are far beyond what they were in Russia four years ago. Speaking after the Wales win, he explained that “in Russia we were just thinking about winning a knockout game. There’s more expectation now, but more confidence and more experience of big matches.” In this knockout match, the lessons of England’s recent experiences need to shine through. They will require patience and precision to break down a resilient Senegal side, match them for energy, and sustain a strong defensive line that has kept clean sheets in the face of pre-tournament questions.

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For Senegal, a mixed bag of results delivered them to the Round of 16. A good performance against the Dutch offered no reward, ending in a 0-2 defeat. A 3-1 win was ‘job done’ against hosts Qatar, which left the remaining fixture against Ecuador to be a must-win. A united display throughout a tense game secured a 2-1 victory necessary for progression, taking them a step further than they managed in 2018.

The Lions of Teranga have suffered from the absence of star player Sadio Mane, after the African Player of the Year suffered a knee injury just days before the start of the tournament. Without their all-time top goalscorer, five different players have scored their five group-stage goals, with Watford’s Ismaila Sarr and Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly delivering when it counted against Ecuador. Other familiar talents include Koulibaly’s teammate, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, as well as the Midlands-based duo of Nottingham Forest’s Cheikhou Kouyate and Leicester’s Nampalys Mendy.

Manager Aliou Cisse led his side to AFCON glory back in February, and at 18th they are the highest ranked African nation in the world. Against England, their experience winning tournaments, combined with their team spirit and high-profile talent (not to mention the support of some of the most passionate fans in football behind them) poses a serious threat. They will be difficult to break down, talented enough to take their chances when they come and equally determined to continue their World Cup dream.

Injury list

Gareth Southgate has no fresh injury concerns to contend with regarding his England squad, leaving him with a desirable selection headache. The only change is that defender Ben White has left the camp and returned home for personal reasons.

Senegal manager Aliou Cisse’s own health may be one of their camp’s biggest concerns. The boss has suffered from illness this week which led to him missing training on Saturday, as well as his press conference later that day, leaving doubt as to whether he’ll be leading his Lions from the dugout tonight.

Player-wise, Idrissa Gueye will be unavailable through suspension, missing out on earning what would have been his 100th international cap. Midfielder Cheikhou Kouyate was stretchered off during Senegal’s opening game against the Netherlands and he has not featured in the tournament since.

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Dangerman: Marcus Rashford

Rashford’s second goal against Wales was England’s 100th scored on the World Cup stage, and capped off a dazzling display from the Manchester United forward. Though his club performances had been lacking since the Euros, his inclusion in this World Cup squad has certainly paid off so far.

His manager Southgate sang his praises post-match, hailing “a different version completely to the player we had in the Euros last summer. He’s managed to produce those moments tonight, and he could have had a hat-trick really. It’s great for him, and because it’s great for him it’s great for us.” This ‘completely different’ Rashford rewarded Southgate’s choice to start him with a brace against Wales, and now with three goals in the tournament so far he has recaptured his top form at the best possible moment for his country.

A start against Senegal would be the best way to continue this. Against an opposition who have failed thus far to keep a clean sheet, Rashford, along with his fellow attackers, should be looking to exploit these defensive frailties to great success.

Managers speak:

England manager Gareth Southgate said: “[Senegal] have some very good individual players and have a great structure. They are very impressive. We know exactly the size of the task ahead of us [tonight]. [Aliou] Cisse has done a fantastic job. They were very unlucky not to qualify from the group in Russia and they have deservedly done it this time.”

Senegal assistant manager Regis Bogaert said: “We are feeling calm and confident. We know that Senegal can beat England, that is what we are aiming for. The more you play in top clubs around the world, the more you will mature and become top-notch players and that is what we are seeing now. I hope that the English are going to underestimate us and we will surprise them, that is what we are looking for.”

Possible starting line-ups

Prediction: England 2 Senegal 0

With the threat of elimination looming, there is sure to be tension in the early stages of this game, which is why it is even more vital for England to get off to a strong start. Senegal have put in resilient performances so far, and as reigning champions of Africa, they have the winning experience in knockout tournaments that has eluded England’s men for over 50 years.

Interestingly, this is the first time these two prides of Lions will be facing off. With both teams experiencing mixed results in the group stages, the pressure is on to deliver the result when it’s most needed. Nothing in football is certain; Senegal are no easy opponents, but if England can replicate their bright, attacking, second-half display against Wales for a full 90-minutes, then it should be enough for the Three Lions to book a place in the quarter-finals.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts

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