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Senegal can seize the moment with talisman Ba

Demba Ba is needed in Africa even more than in Newcastle. The late-blooming striker could embellish an Africa Cup of Nations tournament that otherwise risks being defined by the amount of potential frustrated or power faded.

Only one of the last nine victors has even qualified for this year's tournament, and although that could be taken as evidence that the standard of football is rising across the continent -- and the qualifications of Libya and Botswana were especially commendable -- the absence of Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and the winners of the last three editions, Egypt, has generated a certain pessimism.

There is a sense that the countries who have reached the tournament that is being co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea are not good enough to compensate for the non-appearance of those who have failed to make the most of their resources.

In recent years Senegal have been one of the most exasperating offenders in terms of squandering talent, but now, with Ba's help, they could illustrate the opposite: a country that has successfully reorganised to maximise its abundant ability.

Senegal's last golden generation produced one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history when they toppled France in 2002, but El Hadji Diouf and co are also remembered as a squad that lost its way after a spectacular introduction. They reached the Africa Cup of Nations final a few months before beating Les Bleus but never returned to it and hit rock bottom when their attempt to qualify for the 2010 edition ended in them finishing below Gambia, the tiny nation wedged in their bulk like a geographic splinter.

Indiscipline in the squad was accompanied by corruption off the field that prompted 12 of the country's top clubs to boycott the domestic league and demand reform. That eventually came: a purge of crooked officials in the national federation and the emergence of a team that has high hopes of achieving what their vaunted predecessors could not, largely thanks to a formidable strikeforce spearheaded by Ba. Although he made his debut in 2007 -- marking the occasion with a goal -- his international career has largely been hampered by injuries and his country's decision to persist with Diouf, Diomansy Kamara, Henri Camara and others whom they hoped would finally fulfil the hopes invested in them.

Even as that generation faded Ba was not considered the best of the country's new crop of strikers -- Senegal were top scorers in qualifying even though Ba barely played. His only goal of the campaign, however, was perhaps the most important, a stoppage-time winner after he came off the bench against Cameroon.

Ba's performances in the Premier League since then, and in last week's 1-0 friendly win against Sudan, when he again scored the only goal, mean he has become a certain starter. With Samuel Eto'o absent and Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba on the wane, the stage is set for Ba to confirm his status as the new African superstar striker.

Senegal's strength is shown by the forwards competing to play alongside him: Moussa Sow, who was top scorer in Ligue 1 last season; Papiss Demba Cisse, prolific in the Bundesliga over the past two seasons despite playing for lowly Freiburg; Dame N'Doye, the player of the year in Denmark and a regular Champions League scorer; Souleymane Camara, the 29-year-old who is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career at Montpellier, who are second in Ligue 1; and the veteran Mamadou Niang, who may now be playing his club football in Qatar but retains the qualities that brought him success at Marseille.

Amara Traore, the manager, who has navigated through a transitional period during which, at one stage, he went 10 months without being paid, tries to squeeze as many of those players as possible into his line-up, often by deploying Cisse or Sow in midfield.

The question to which Traore is still seeking an answer is how best to get the ball to his fearsome forwards. Senegal are solid in the middle, thanks to Wigan's Mohamed Diame and Birmingham City's Guirane N'Daw, and also at the back despite the lack of a top-class goalkeeper (as well as being top scorers in qualification, they conceded fewer goals than any other country) but they do not have a midfield creator of the calibre of, say, Ghana's Andre Ayew and Kwadwo Asamoah, Ivory Coast's Yaya Toure or the Moroccan trio of Adel Taarabt, Mbark Boussoufa and Houcine Kharja.

Those countries are the most likely to thwart Senegal's ambitions. But while they may not create as many chances as others, this Senegalese side are experts at taking them and the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations represents a big one.


Sunday Indo Sport