The 2022 World Cup is coming along rather brilliantly. The goals are great, the results are unpredictable and the matches have been fun. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day's action.
For day 10, we pick Kalidou Koulibaly's impeccable volley that sent his nation into the World Cup knockouts for just the second time ever.
Kalidou Koulibaly is a big, big man. He has the low, sloping shoulders of a man of immense power and the loping gait of a man who just knows he's physically superior to most around him. When someone of his build gets into the opposition box for a set-piece, you expect one thing: 'get into the mixer, lad.' Use all that power, all that height, all that aggression, and win a header or two in the middle of the crowd. So when he jogged up into the Ecuador penalty box with the scores tied at 1-1, Senegal staring at World Cup elimination in twenty minutes, you'd have expected him to get right into the six-yard box.
If you did that, though, you really don't know Kalidou Koulibaly.
For ages now, he's made defending at the highest levels of football look easy and often been treated to the same adjectives over and over again: strong, fast, powerful. Look deeper, though, and you'll see these physical aspects are merely a support system for his prime attributes: technique and footballing intelligence. And a willingness - an eagerness -- to take risks.
On Tuesday, he showcased all of this at the biggest stage of them all.
Ecuador had come into the match as one of the most impressive teams of the first two match-days. Their attack had eviscerated Qatar and had had Netherlands clinging on for dear life. That attack didn't get a sniff of Edouard Mendy's goal from open play, Koulibaly marshalling his defence brilliantly.
Kalidou Koulibaly's game by numbers vs. Ecuador:
100% tackle success
10 duels won
10 clearances made (most)
9 passes into final ⅓
5 x possession won
4 tackles made (most)
3 aerial duels won
3 fouls won
0 x dribbled past
Captain. Leader. Legend. © pic.twitter.com/2kKhakQIub
- Squawka (@Squawka) November 29, 2022
His passing range had been integral to coach Aliou Cisse's gameplan too -- and he had been pinging long diagonals and down-the-channel balls all day to keep Senegal on the front foot, helping set the quick tempo of passing that disconcerted the Ecuadorians for the majority of the match.
They dominated Ecuador for all the first half, and led at the break thanks to a no-look Ismaila Sarr penalty (won by Sarr after yet another quick and incisive ball from deep in the defence). In the 67th minute, though, Senegal switched off while defending a corner and Moises Caicedo equalised for Ecuador.
It was then, three minutes later that, the set-piece came about, and the big man decided to make up for his team's collective lapse. And show off a bit while at it.
It started with a risk. With the other big men occupying the middle of the box, Koulibaly drifted toward the near post, not the kind of area a delivery would arrive at. And indeed it didn't, Idrissa Gana Gueye's delicious ball flying straight into the mixer. There it bounced off the melee in the middle and straight out towards the near post. Towards Koulibaly, and Koulibaly only. You see, with everyone else following the trajectory of the ball, he had ghosted in behind his markers and created acres of space for himself. As the ball ricocheted towards him at an awkward height, Koulibaly took a tiny step to steady himself before placing a perfect volley right into the side-netting of the far post.
It was his first ever goal for his nation.
Captain for the tournament, Senegal's (and Africa's, and indeed one of the world's) best player Sadio Mane out injured, Koulibaly has had a lot of pressure on his shoulders. He had come into the tournament off a poor start to life at Chelsea, but he had had the backing of his national team throughout. He had, after all, been key (along with Mane), to winning the AFCON and later qualifying for Qatar. The pressure had been amped up on Tuesday: ahead of this virtual knockout vs Ecuador he had seen videos of the great Papa Bouba Diop, put out by his family on the occasion of his second death anniversary. Diop had been a hero in his homeland, still is, and Koulibaly had walked out with a '19' on his armband in remembrance. To say it was an emotionally charged would be an understatement.
It is in this context that this moment shines through: that clarity of thought to focus on the ball, that trust in his technique to deliver the volley, that unreal ability of elite sportspeople to shut down everything else and exist in a bubble for those few seconds that matter.
"[Diop] made me dream as a boy," Koulibaly would say after the match. Now, he is making others do it: a pin-point crossfield here, a perfectly timed interception there... And on this one special occasion, by volleying his nation into the knockouts of a World Cup.