After losing a penalty shoot-out to Cameroon in the 2002 Bamako final, the Teranga Lions gradually fell away and did not even qualify for the previous tournament in Angola two years ago.
Coaches were hired and fired with alarming frequency before unheralded Amara Traore took charge and built a new team around penalty-area predators Moussa Sow, Mamadou Niang, Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba.
Sow was the leading French Ligue 1 scorer last season as he helped Lille to a league and cup double and Cisse finished runner-up on the German Bundesliga goal charts.
Although Niang may have entered the autumn of his career at Asian champions Al-Sadd after spells in France and Turkey, he was the leading Senegalese marksman in the qualifiers with five goals, including a hat-trick away to DR Congo.
But the man of the moment is Newcastle United darling Ba, whose English Premier League goal against defending champions Manchester United last week was a lesson in simplicity, positioning, skill and raw, unstoppable power.
A long clearance, a flick-on, and Ba struck with a volley that flew into the net to open the scoring in a memorable 3-1 triumph for the Magpies amid the electric St James’ Park atmosphere.
The physically imposing 26-year-old is the second highest league scorer this season with 15 goals — two less than Robin van Persie of Arsenal but two more than United icon Wayne Rooney.
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew rates the footballer who operated in France, Belgium and Germany before moving to West Ham last year among the top four or five Premier League strikers.
“His biggest asset is his personality — Demba is a winner. I have given him two or three different roles and he has done them all to the best of his ability,” said Pardew.
Ba oozes pride as he talks about his Senegalese team-mates: “I just love these guys. They are good on and off the field — training camps are intense but great fun because we behave like brothers.”
Strikers alone cannot win a Cup of Nations and France-based pair Kader Mangane and Souleymane Diawara marshal a defence that kept five clean sheets in six qualifiers, including two against a Cameroon attack spearheaded by Samuel Eto’o.
A row involving the sports ministry and the football federation over a new contract for Traore temporarily derailed preparations, but plans are back on track with two cancelled Dakar warm-up matches restored.
Topping co-hosts Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Zambia and winning Group A is imperative for the Lions as this would set up a likely quarter-final clash with Angola or Burkina Faso.
Finishing second means Didier Drogba-captained co-favourites Ivory Coast come into play as probable opponents — a match-up the Senegalese would rather postpone until the February 12 Libreville final.
Zambia are first up on January 21 in round five of an enduring Cup of Nations rivalry that has seen each country win once and draw twice, followed by Equatorial Guinea and Libya.
Qualifying results: DR Congo 2-0 4-2, Mauritius 7-0 2-0, Cameroon 1-0 0-0
Scorers: 5 – Mamadou Niang, 4 – Papiss Cisse, Moussa Sow, 1 – Demba Ba, Dame N’Doye, Joye Estazie (MRI) own goal
Captain: Mamadou Niang
Coach: Amara Traore
Rankings: CAF 6, FIFA 44
Nickname: Teranga Lions
Previous appearances: 1965 – fourth, 1968 – first round, 1986 – first round, 1990 – fourth, 1992 – quarter-finals, 1994 – quarter-finals, 2000 – quarter-finals, 2002 – runners-up, 2004 – quarter-finals, 2006 – fourth, 2008 – first round
Record: P43 W15 D11 L17 F49 A40
Record win: Ethiopia 5-1, loss: Angola 1-3