England v Senegal: Kane and Koulibaly face off again in World Cup battle of astute leaders

Both players are consistently regarded as the very best in their positions

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

On the second Sunday of this marathon season, the fuse was lit early in the Premier League. Tottenham Hotspur travelled to Chelsea, and a see-saw draw was played out on the undercard of a ferocious touchline bout. Antonio Conte, the Spurs manager, and Thomas Tuchel, his then counterpart, were shouting, pushing and gesticulating at one another at every opportunity.

Both were cautioned with 20 minutes remaining. Both would be red-carded at the end. Leadership, absent from the childish managerial antics, had to be provided on the pitch, and as Chelsea took the initiative and Spurs came back twice, a pair of leaders stood out.

There was Kalidou Koulibaly, making his home debut in English football following his summer arrival at Chelsea from Napoli. He scored the opener, a spectacular volley from a well-timed run from the edge of the Spurs penalty area. Koulibaly, a centre-back, is not a prolific marksman. It was a very special goal.

Later in the game, his proactive pressing and strength in the challenge led to Chelsea’s second, Koulibaly dispossessing Dejan Kulusevski as Spurs launched a counter-attack. At 2-1 up, with less than a quarter of an hour left, Tuchel flamboyantly paraded an anticipated victory in front of the Spurs coaching staff.

But he had reckoned without Spurs’s go-to leader. Harry Kane, with a neat, glanced header that just evaded Koulibaly on the Chelsea goal-line ensured the points would be shared.

Kane and Koulibaly, two giants of elite club football, will meet, and mark one another, for only the second time in their careers on Sunday, contesting a place in the World Cup quarter-finals at Al Bayt stadium. They are the captains, respectively, of England and Senegal. Around them will be players boasting many more individual medals from their careers, but few who have been so consistently regarded as the very best in their positions.

Neither Koulibaly - selected four times in central defence in the Serie A Team of the Year - nor Kane - five picks up front in the Premier League XI of the Season - has ever won a league title. They have appeared in just two domestic cup finals each in a decade spent in top-flight football. That’s a low yield of souvenir occasions. For both, it is the frustrating downside of loyalty to one club.

Kane, who graduated from the Tottenham academy and made his senior Spurs debut in 2011, asked to leave the club for Manchester City last year, but his long contract tied him to North London. He remains hugely loved by Spurs supporters.

Koulibaly’s eight seasons at Napoli, where he won three Serie A runners-up medals, gained him a cherished place in Neapolitan hearts. “One of the best I’ve ever managed,” said the former Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti of Koulibaly, ranking him alongside greats he has worked with, like Paolo Maldini, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, and Sergio Ramos.

Almost every summer since 2015, Napoli rebuffed bids for Koulibaly from one European superclub or another. Impatience for significant prizes eventually drew Koulibaly to say ‘yes’ to Chelsea, although when he looks at the exchange he made - Napoli are soaring at the top of the Italian table, Chelsea eighth in the Premier League - he is bound to reflect on the wisdom of his timing.

For Koulibaly at least, international competition has compensated the near-misses at club level. He steered Senegal to their first African Cup of Nations title in February, and his leadership in Qatar has been conspicuous.

Missing Sadio Mane, with injury, Senegal have leaned on their captain. In the absence of the suspended midfield governor Idrissa Gana Gueye, and with coach Aliou Cisse recovering from an illness that affected Cisse coming into the weekend, they look to the skipper all the more.

Koulibaly has so far risen to extra responsibilities. He struck his first international goal, in his 67th cap, against Ecuador, a volley reminiscent of that strike against Kane’s Spurs, that clinched his country’s place in the knockouts.

Kane, captain of England’s Euro 2020 runners-up, has yet to register a goal in Qatar, a dip in form by his standards - he has 51 goals from 78 caps - but not such that his starting place would be in any doubt, fitness assumed. Besides, he has directly set up three of the nine goals Gareth Southgate’s team scored in topping Group B.

“They were important assists from moments of real quality,” stressed the England manager, who has long recognised a dependence on Kane as finisher, playmaker and leader. “We need to share goals around. We’re starting to do that.”

Updated: December 04, 2022, 6:46 AM