Marrakech — Last night, in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Stade de Marrakech, the Uganda Cranes met an all too familiar fate. Playing against 10 men for just over 50 minutes, ultimately the superior class and fitness of the Senegalese players told, as they crushed Ugandan hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.
With 83 minutes gone, Sadio Mane delivered the knockout blow. But in truth, Uganda were on the ropes for some time before then. Following a red card to Godfrey Walusimbi for a reckless two footed tackle in the 37th minute, Senegal began to dissect the Ugandan defence, counter attacking with surgical precision.
After one swift move early in the second half, Sadio Mane slammed a shot against the crossbar. Shortly after, he was once again denied, this time by in form St George keeper Robert Odongkara, superbly saving with an outstretched leg.
But Odongkara could do nothing to prevent Mane from tapping in from two yards; a simple finish to herald a simple conclusion - for all the promise they showed, and effort they put in, this Uganda team was not good enough to go to the World Cup.
In truth the game was poor. Only African international matches have the ability to make world class players look like they are playing in corporate league football. Indeed, there were lots of aimless long balls, too many unnecessary stoppages in play, and a lack of sustained possession for either team.
The Senegalese won't care, for who needs sustained possession when you possess the physical abilities of Greek gods on performance enhancing drugs? Save for a few moments of class from Moussa Sow, and later Dame N'Doye, they showed little creativity going forward.
In fact, such was their reliance on long balls, at times Senegal looked like they were staging an extended tribute to departed Stoke City manager Tony Pulis. Such long balls were ineffective, Mame Biram Diouf more resembling Manchester United flop than Hanover 96 ace. Senegal slowed the game down, congested the centre of midfield, and remained content to counter attack against a team that had only 10 men for the majority of the match.
Lions of the Teranga fans will admit that this may have been negative, but ultimately it was a successful approach.
The Cranes were not much easier on the eye, often resorting to long balls despite fielding no outfield players above the height of 5 '10. Micho unleashed his tried and tested 'three pronged trident' in central midfield of Mawejje, Wasswa and Kizito, but unfortunately it was blunt.Although effective in tracking the rare runs of Senegalese midfielders and competing for possession, it did not gel as an attacking force.
Baba Kizito is clearly not a natural playmaker, and it showed, but on occasions, he did manage to play a few penetrating passes to the Majwega and Kiiza. As expected, Mawejje and Wasswa sat deeper, generally performing well defensively but offering little in attack.
Uganda's brightest play came through Kiiza and Okwi, both held the ball up well when isolated, and showed pace and clever movement to offer a threat on the break. On 48 minutes, Hamis Kiiza did particurlarly well to control an accurate long pass from Dennis Guma, shift the ball in between two Senegalese defenders, and release a left footed shot on the turn.
It was a decent strike from around the edge of the box but easily parried by Bouna Candoul. It was not 'a sitter in front of goal,' as Micho later described it, but a decent moment for the Cranes nonetheless. Sadly, despite working hard and looking sharp on the ball, Okwi's lack of recent game time showed as he continually pulled up with cramp and had to be withdrawn midway through the second half.
Walusimbi's red card was of course a huge blow I am yet to dwell on, but not a terminal one. Many will look to make him the scapegoat; it was a poor tackle, and did warrant a red card. But even with 11 players, 4 of whom have not recently been playing regular club football, the truth is that it is unlikely Uganda would have been able to keep pace with the finely tuned Senegalese man-machines.
The depth of established talent in the respective squads was evident midway through the second half. Alain Giresse was fortunate enough to be able to bring on Lokomotiv Moscow hit man Dame N'Doye, whilst Micho introduced URA rookie Frank Kalanda. N'Doye immediately showed his class, playing a crucial part in the first goal. Kalanda, isolated, and up against the best center backs he will ever have faced, struggled to get in the game.
No doubt, the Ugandan media will re-tell the narrative that again they came so close to glory before it was cruelly snatched from them. But such emotion does not change the facts. Senegal was clear group winners by 4 points.
Before the game, they only needed a draw, making them overwhelming favorites. Furthermore they had 11 fit players performing regularly in top flight European football. This Senegal team did not have to dream of qualifying for the playoffs; they expected to. One day, the Uganda Cranes will hope to find themselves in a similar predicament.
Senegal 1 (Mane 84) Uganda 0:
P W D L F A Pts
Senegal 6 3 3 0 9 4 12
Uganda 6 2 2 2 5 6 8
Angola 6 1 4 1 8 6 7
Liberia 6 1 1 4 4 10 4
*'Ed Stoner (@edstoner91) is Director of Soccer IQ, an Africa focused sports agency.