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Afcon 2021: Senegal’s Nampalys Mendy making up for lost time

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Afcon 2021: Senegal’s Nampalys Mendy making up for lost time

Once tipped as the successor to N’Golo Kante at Leicester City, the defensive midfielder is finally forging a fine international career

Senegal have rarely been short of quality midfield options, from Salif Diao to Papa Bouba Diop, from Idrissa Gueye to Chiekhou Kouyate.

Admittedly, they may not be blessed with an abundance of creativity or offensive nous, but as far as defensive-minded destroyers or spoilers go, few of the continent’s sides can match Senegal’s consistent production line.

At the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations, midfield has—predictably—been a source of strength and weakness for the Teranga Lions.

The trio of Gueye, Kouyate and Nampalys Mendy of Leicester City isn’t going to create too many quality openings—this was evident as Senegal failed to score a single goal from open play during the course of their group-stage campaign—but they will certainly prevent opponents from settling, taking the initiative in midfield, or of imposing considerable pressure on the West Africans.
Head coach Aliou Cisse may have been unhappy about some of the gaps left between the lines during the first half of Senegal’s semi-final victory over Burkina Faso, but after a few firm words from the coach during the interval, the Teranga Lions were largely imperious after the break.

With Senegal’s forwards now getting openings and opportunities—and putting them away—during a more open knockout stage (matches being played in the evening certainly helps), their rugged midfield is proving crucial in giving the Lions’ attackers a platform upon which they can play.

While Gueye and Kouyate have tasted Nations Cup disappointment before, this is Mendy’s first tournament with the national side.

Despite being 29, he only made his international debut last year, having previously represented France at youth level from U-18 to U-21.

He’s finally getting his chance to shine in the continental area, and make up for lost time, with a series of injury-hit years affecting his progress at club level and, subsequently, with the national side.

It could have all been so different for Mendy had his compatriot Gueye not signed for Aston Villa instead of Leicester City in 2015.

While Gana’s time with the Villains was not a success, as they dropped into the second tier, the man who the Foxes did eventually sign for the defensive-midfield role—N’Golo Kante—was influential as Leicester recorded a miraculous title triumph in 2016.

He subsequently moved to Chelsea, and once again—one year down the line—Leicester were in the market for a defensive midfielder.

Gueye was on the move again—this time to Everton—so he was off the table, and instead, the East Midlanders turned to his compatriot Mendy, who had been earning his stripes in Ligue 1 with OGC Nice.

Several things have counted against the diminutive midfielder truly making an impact at Leicester; one has been the club’s changing head coaches during the early years of his time at the club—from Claudio Ranieri to Craig Shakespeare, from Claude Puel to Brendan Rodgers, who initially didn’t fancy the nippy operator.

Another has been injuries, with Mendy breaking a shard of bone off his ankle only a fortnight after arriving at the club for a record £13 million.

Surgeries followed, and he even returned to Nice on loan in a bid to rediscover his sharpness after initially finding himself surplus to requirements at the King Power Stadium.

A third factor has been the arrival of Wilfred Ndidi, who was bought by the Foxes in December 2016 as a response to losing Mendy to a long-term fitness problem.

Last term he made 29 outings as the Foxes again missed out on the Champions League—having finally appeared to have won over Rodgers—but as the Nations Cup got underway, there were still question marks hanging around his future presence in the East Midlands.

That’s all changed now, with his performances in Cameroon, coupled with Filip Benkovic’s exit from the club, prompting Rodgers to register Mendy once again in the Foxes’ 25-man Prem squad.

Having been Caf’s Man of the Match against Equatorial Guinea, his performance against Burkina Faso in Cameroon’s semi-final was evidence of his influence for the Lions at this tournament, as Mendy recycled possession effectively—registering a 94-percent pass success rate, more than any other player on the pitch—won the ball back seven times, and created one goalscoring opportunity.

While Mendy claims that he jumped at the opportunity to represent the Lions as soon as Cisse gave him the call, there were previous reports that he had rejected call-ups to join Senegal before finally making his debut last year.

“The problem wasn’t whether I chose Senegal or not,” he told GOAL, “it was that I hadn’t been called up, but today I’m very proud of being in this group, we’re giving a good face of our team, a strong spirit, and I hope it’s going to continue.

“I’m flattered [to be Man of the Match], but the most important thing is what we’ve showed, we’re united.

“We respected the advice of our coach to the letter, and now we’re here—we hope we can go on from here.”

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He may not be among the most high-profile players in this star-studded Senegal team, but as the Lions have navigated the latter stages, he’s played a subtle and underappreciated role in their run to the final.

He may not be Gana Gueye, he may not be Ndidi, he certainly isn’t Kante, but as Mendy approaches 30, his undisputed talent is finally leaving a mark in the world game.

By tmaq

TMAQ is a music & content promotion (A&R PR) | Digital and Social Media Marketer | tmaq4real@gmail.com|08134591329 Official P.R to AAR

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