Group B winners England's Three Lions face Senegal's Teranga Lions, the runners up from Group A, after passing their Wales test with flying colours after the disappointing draw with USA as Gareth Southgate shuffled his pack bringing in the fresh attacking energy of Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, who responded with 3 goals between them:
Next up in the round of 16 is England's sternest test yet at the Qatar World Cup in the shape of Aliou Cisse's African Cup of Nations Champions Senegal, who beat Egypt in February to lift the crown of the vast continent which has given them real confidence going into to what is only the African nation's third appearance at the World Cup Finals.
With wins against Ecuador and Qatar and a loss to the Netherlands, Senegal qualified second in Group A having scored five times and conceded four goals including strikes from British-based players in Watford's Ismail Sarr in the Championship and Chelsea's Premier League star Kalidou Koulibaly who will be familiar to fans of English football.
It was only very late goals in the 84th minute by Cody Gapko and 99th by Davy Klassen after a spirited performance against Louis Van Gaal's men that prevented Senegal from topping the group and former Newcastle, West Ham and Chelsea striker Demba Ba guest-writing for The Athletic during The World Cup claims his countrymen pose a real threat to The Three Lions hopes of getting to the Quarter-Final:
"Here’s the thing: we don’t underestimate ourselves any more. Senegal will be fighting toe-to-toe with England...
Ours is a very good team, one that has been together for the last five to seven years. It’s a long time for the same coach to be in position and quite unusual in international football...
I wouldn’t say I’m concerned about England — that’s not the right word — but we have to be careful about their quality. When you look at their players, we understand they carry a great offensive threat. Where we can threaten them is through our physicality and our pace. Everyone knows that English football is very physical, but I can guarantee it doesn’t compare with African football! And the pace of some of the players we have is just insane."
That pace and athleticism possessed by Senegal will be the biggest threat to English hopes with the Teranga Lions likely to attempt to exploit Harry Macguire's lack of speed as clubs do in The Premier League when playing against Man United. Indeed, one of Maguire's darkest days in football was being sent off in Watford's 4-1 win against the Red Devils and it was for fouling Senegal's speed merchant Ismail Sarr that Maguire received his first booking before being sent off for fouling Tom Cleverley:
If its highly unlikely Gareth Southgate will drop the Manchester United defender who is enjoying another outstanding tournament, packing the defence and defensive midfielders with pace around him will be crucial if he doesn't. However, the option is there to rest Maguire and play a Man City centre-back pairing of John Stones & Kyle Walker, whose electric pace could be crucial in dealing with Senegal's rapid attackers.
Against Wales, Southgate used five subs and got important tournament minutes into the legs of three previously unused players - Walker who started right-back after being injured and was replaced by substitute Trent-Alexander Arnold for his first contribution in Qatar 2022 as well and Kalvin Phillips, who replaced Declan Rice after an hour.
Equally importantly, Callum Wilson came on for Harry Kane in the striking role on 58" and Kieron Trippier replaced Luke Shaw on 65" so several of England's nailed-on starters got a rest with the game wrapped up preserving them for future matches which could be important in what could be an intense physical battle versus a buoyant Senegal side.
Yet if that AFCON victory will have given Senegal confidence to beat Ecuador and Qatar, the handicap of losing talisman striker Sadio Mane to injury before the tournament began was a factor in their loss to Holland through a lack of true cutting edge:
And the loss of experienced former PSG now Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye through suspension will weaken their centre:
These are big blows to a side who perhaps need to be at their absolute full strength to live with an England side with serious designs on the tournament after a Semi-Final position in Russia and narrowly losing Euro 2020 held last year on penalties to Italy.
Rather than a reliance on Mane's goals - the ex-Liverpool Bayern Munich goal machine has scored by far the most goals - 27 - in manager Cisse's 7 -year tenure as boss:
five different scorers have notched for Senegal, reflecting the rotating team-sheet that has seen a 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 formation so far in the group stage and positions of players changing like danger man Sarr, who impressed on the left against Holland and Ecuador but was switched to the right to good effect against Qatar and may well reprise that role against England.
In his country's biggest match since the 2002 World Cup when Aliou Cisse the player captained the newcomers to the global stage to an unexpected Quarter Final after beating France and Sweden en route:
Cisse the manager has his most important ever team selection and is likely to field a similar 4-2-3-1 side to that which faced Holland but will be hoping for more of a cutting edge if they are to deliver the victory Senegalese fans dream of.
Southgate Spoilt For Choice But Must Select Horses For Courses
Meanwhile, in the England camp, Gareth Southgate is facing a selection dilemma of a different sort - an embarrassment of riches as The Three Lions' squad is packed with talent throughout the squad especially in wide forward positions and has Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, and Bukayo Saka to choose from who have all scored from the wings in the group stage of the tournament.
Rashford's two-goal display means he is almost certainly undroppable and Southgate - having seemingly bowed to the public clamour for Phil Foden's inclusion - may be about to bow to the clamour of playing the Man City man in his favoured central position behind striker Harry Kane. I would play Arsenal's Saka, whose pace can trouble anyone and whose two goals against Iran makes him as dangerous a threat as Rashford, on the wing to have two powerfully fast direct wide men to keep Senegal pegged back.
Currently goalless in the tournament so far although with three assists to his name, Captain Harry Kane is likely to lead the side out although his increasing tendency to drop deep into midfield in the deeper 10 role he has evolved into at Spurs mean England lack a real central striker box presence and look more dangerous when Callum Wilson comes on for him and offers that more direct true goal threat.
Another option would be to play Wilson in the 9 role with Kane behind him in the 10, a role Kane performs at Spurs for South Korea's Son Heung-Min yet with striking options limited, playing one of the true 9s in the squad at a time may be the wisest option or perhaps kept in reserve to go for the jugular against France, Spain, Portugal or Brazil.
Then there is the likes of the hitherto unused James Maddison, the Leicester man who has arguably been the best English player in the Premier League so far this season and in a struggling Foxes team and it would be great to see him play some part especially with an eye for both a pass and a goal and an unerring ability to score from distance.
Whatever team and especially forward line the England manager chooses, you sense it will be too much for Senegal especially when five substitutes allow for up to six of the best Three Lions forwards to make their mark - and we've barely mentioned the star of the 2021 Euros Raheem Sterling yet so if England can keep it tight at the back which has been their core strength since Southgate took charge, they will be the Lions who roar their team into the Quarter-Finals & a potentially mouthwatering clash with France.
Prediction - England 3 Senegal 1