How They Got Here: Burkina Faso vs. Senegal

senegal soccer

After almost a month of action, we have reached the semifinals of the 2021 African Cup of Nations.

This tournament has had everything: red cards and goals, controversy and upsets, underdogs and powerhouses. Defending champions Algeria were stunningly eliminated in the group stage alongside traditional favorites Ghana, whilst the likes of Comoros and Gambia were able to advance farther than many expected. Tunisian fans and players alike were livid as their game against Mali was ended before 90 minutes, whilst Comoros had complaints after being forced to play without a goalkeeper due to Covid restrictions. This all just makes it even more impressive for the teams that do advance, who have had to overcome their fair share of problems along the way. Here’s how Senegal and Burkina Faso, the first semifinal at AFCON, have gotten to the semis, as well as what to look out for.

Burkina Faso looked a sure early exit in the knockout rounds. In fact, I even predicted they would. This wasn’t too outlandish a prediction looking at their group stage results: they won just one game (against Ethiopia, ranked as 137th best team in the world per FIFA), tied Cape Verde, and lost to hosts Cameroon. They also scored just three goals while conceding three, all from the penalty spot.

In the knockouts, the same problems plagued the Stallions. They scored an early goal against Gabon before a late defensive mistake – an own goal – allowed Gabon to equalize. Burkina Faso were fortunate to win on penalties, having been outshot, out possessed, and out-passed by an Aubameyang-less Gabon side. Against Tunisia, they again struggled to hold onto the ball, with less than 40% possession, but their counter attack proved lethal and Burkina Faso eventually won 1-0.

The good news? The team they face in the semifinals is Senegal, who have their own goal-scoring problems. Burkina Faso also have the fifth-most shots on target-per-90 in the entire tournament, and they have only conceded one goal from open play. They’ll also be flying high having just beaten Africa’s fourth highest ranked team (Tunisia).

The bad news? Pretty much everything else. Of the remaining teams, only Egypt has fewer goals scored so far, but none have allowed more goals than Burkina Faso. Not one player on the Stallions has more than one goal, either, with the team having fewer goals than Cameroon’s leading scorer.

Despite reaching the semifinals, it’s been an underwhelming tournament for Senegal. They scored just one goal in the group stages (a penalty kick in the 97th minute against Zimbabwe), and were shut out by Guinea and Malawi. None of their group stage opponents made it farther than the Round of 16.

They followed this up with controversial victories in the knockouts. Two relatively soft red cards against Cape Verde (including one for goalkeeper Vozinha) meant that Senegal could snatch two late goals – both of which came after Cape Verde were down to nine men. The 3-1 victory over Equatorial Guinea was also not without controversy, as the Guineans had many penalty shouts rejected – including a sure handball on Kalidou Koulibaly, originally called a penalty kick before VAR review.

The good news? Senegal have the joint-best defense in the tournament, conceding just one goal. The offense has also improved significantly in the knockouts, controversy aside – scoring five goals in two games after just one in three. They also have one of Africa’s best players in Liverpool’s Sadio Mane.
The bad news? They haven’t exactly faced the most difficult opponents: the highest ranked team they beat is Cape Verde, ranked 73rd in the world. They also have been playing on the upper hand in the knockouts, with Cape Verde multiple players down whilst Equatorial Guinea gave up late goals scrambling for an equalizer. They could have trouble breaking down Burkina Faso.

Both of these teams will have to be at their very best to reach the finals of the tournament, but they’ll be looking at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. Senegal were in the final of the last edition back in 2019, but Burkina Faso failed to qualify for that edition and haven’t made the finals since 2013. Senegal are ranked by FIFA as the best team in Africa, compared to Burkina Faso’s 11th place ranking. Senegal’s star player, Sadio Mané, is valued at $88 million by Transfermarkt, more than the entire Burkina Faso team. In theory, Senegal should be easy winners. However, as AFCON has already proven, nothing is guaranteed.

Image courtesy of Екатерина Лаут, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons.

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