Idrissa Gana Gueye will bid to book Senegal's place in the last 16 of the World Cup when the defending Africa Cup of Nations champions face Ecuador in Al Rayyan on Tuesday (3pm GMT).
Ahead of the clash, here's our in-depth interview with the Blues midfielder from the recent Leicester City matchday programme, where Gana discusses watching his beloved Everton from a distance, parallels with building for success with Senegal and reuniting with a “unique” Blues icon…
The star-studded line-up of Paris Saint-Germain prepare to wind down for the evening in the team hotel ahead of an important game the following day.
In one of those rooms, Everton are on the television — again.
Julian Draxler and Presnel Kimpembe, two of Idrissa Gana Gueye’s close friends, simultaneously roll their eyes as they prepare to lose their colleague for another tense 90 minutes, with the Blues in the midst of a nerve-wracking fight to preserve an unbroken run of 71 years in the top-flight.
“It would happen every time,” Gana replies, when asked how often he would watch the Blues during his three-year absence from Goodison Park. “My friends would say, ‘Oh, get out with your team!’… They used to try to wind me up because they knew how much I cared, but I told them, ‘You will see, we will be okay!’
“It hurt me to see the Club having a difficult time but I never stopped believing in them.
“The last few games were really, really tough for me because I was believing but I was worrying, too.
“This club can’t go down to the Championship. When they managed to do it against Crystal Palace, they made me proud.
“Then, seeing the supporters after the final whistle and seeing what it means to them, it’s a good moment and it just shows how big club this is.
“But now I want to leave those kind of moments and reactions for the successful moments.
“I want us to be celebrating winning, not staying in the league - it’s a different thing.
“Last season is done now. It’s a fresh start.”
Everton’s Energizer Bunny proclaimed he was “coming home” after sealing a return to Merseyside from Paris on deadline day of the last transfer window.
He returned to the Blues having won six domestic trophies in the French capital, reaching the Champions League final and playing an integral part in Senegal’s first-ever Africa Cup of Nations triumph (more on that later).
“I’m very, very happy to have another opportunity to give my all for this club,” smiles Gana, apologising for his near-perfect English, insisting he has forgotten some of his vocabulary during his time away. “I spent three years here and once you are a blue, you are always a blue.
“How can I explain? It’s in my heart and it’s a feeling that will not leave. This club is part of me. It’s hard to find the words but coming back here, the sensation I had was that - like coming home.
“I had a good period in PSG and I was only ever going to leave for Everton.
“There were other opportunities, but I told my agent to refuse them straight away. It wasn’t in my plan to come back, but, as soon as Everton called me and said they needed me and wanted me to help… I cannot say no. It’s my home, that’s how I feel.
“I can’t say no to Everton, regardless of if they’re a the top of the league or bottom.
“It doesn’t matter for me because I care about this club. I’m up for this challenge and I want to help us move up the table.
“I want to bring my experiences from the past three years with me to the team.
“The reaction I’ve had from the Evertonians has made me very, very proud.
“They just confirmed to me — not that I had any doubts whatsoever — that I made the right decision to come back here.
“They’ve shown me that I’m part of this family.
“That’s the most important thing to me: the human beings, the people.”
Gana’s popularity in the stands — demonstrated with a rousing reception as he stepped off the bench to make his ‘second debut’ for the Club in the 241st Merseyside derby back in September — is mirrored in the changing room.
“I missed you, baby!” shouted Tom Davies in the corridors of Finch Farm, as he beamed over the return of the Club’s 2018/19 Players’ Player of the Season and went in for a hug. Mason Holgate and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, as well as the kit staff and members of the training ground’s kitchen team, afforded the midfielder a similar reaction.
That “special” welcome, Gana insists, quickly alleviated any anxiety over how he would be received by familiar faces upon his return.
There was one individual, though, he still couldn’t wait to see in person.
Captain Seamus Coleman had built up a rapport with Gana during the first three years the pair spent as teammates for the Toffees. So much so, the two frequently exchanged messages following Gana’s exit.
“I love him,” he declares. “Everywhere I go, I find myself talking about Seamus because, for me, he is unique.
“Sometimes, I try to be more like him. I know I’m not perfect. Sometimes I can be sad and, in those situations, sometimes I keep myself to myself sometimes, rather than speaking out. Seamus is never like that; he always has the right words for the situation and always with a smile.
“He knows when to talk harder to bring everyone together and he knows when he doesn’t need to do that.
“He’s not just shouting in the dressing room every time, no, he talks when he needs to talk.
“Sometimes in football and in life people want to be loudest in the room, but Seamus talks when he feels like he needs to and he has something to say.
“It’s completely natural with him. I’ve never seen it in any other person I’ve met in my life.
“I never lost contact, I always kept talking to him because I respect him so much. He really impressed me the first time I was here and, of course, he hasn’t changed.
“He’s that guy you can trust 100 per cent. He showed me during my first few years here — I saw him doing some things and at the time maybe I wouldn’t understand but then later you would realise exactly why.
“He is a proper captain. And not only that, above all of that, above being a footballer, he is a proper human being, a great guy.”
Boss Frank Lampard spoke of the importance of building on the personality and leadership within his dressing room and executed those plans emphatically over the summer, adding Conor Coady and James Tarkowski — both of whom captained in the Premier League for their former clubs — as well as Gana.
Add Coleman and Jordan Pickford to that group and the 33-year-old believes have the ideal volume of leaders in the squad.
But it is the quality, rather than the quantity, of the leadership that has impressed him most.
“The key thing is to have good leaders, who understand what the manager wants and pull in the same direction as the manager,” insists Gana. “Everything the manager is asking from us, we have to agree that is the way to go.
“You can have the best manager in the world but if the team are not committed to the manager, it will not work.
“If the team are with the manager and the leaders can help to unite everyone behind the manager and help get those messages across, this is the way to success.
“Everyone must go in the same direction and maybe in the beginning we will stumble and have some difficulties, but you have to keep going.
“The leaders are here to make sure that everyone here is with the manager and his staff, with the team as a collective and that’s so important because if that doesn’t happen, we can’t achieve our goals or get to where we want to get to.”
Fitting, then, that he holds the manager in such high regard.
“When the gaffer called me, first of all, it was a pleasure for me to talk with him,” says Gana. “He explained he wanted to bring me back to try to help the team and bring the club to where it deserves to be — in the top positions, but we know that isn’t coming in one day.
“The manager knows where he wants to go, that’s the first thing. Then, after, he knows how to get there.
“He knows how to get those messages to the players; he knows the right way every time.
“For example, sometimes we’ll have a meeting and going into it I’d be thinking about something and think ‘I should speak to the manager about this’, then, in that very meeting, he addresses exactly what I’ve been thinking about.
“For me, he’s been great. There’s a really good feeling and I’m very happy to work for him.
“I know he can get us to our goals. It takes time and has to be done step by step.
“We will work together as a team with the manager, the Director of Football and the whole club to try to build a strong, winning team.
“I’ve come back and found every player here has a great desire to play for this club and win games for Everton.
“There is a real good mix of experience and top young talent and we have to keep working together to win matches and keep getting better as a unit to get to where we want to be.”
At this point, it would be easy to accuse Gana of slipping into platitudes.
But that simply is not the case.
He has seen this process before. In fact, he has lived it first-hand.
Away from club success, in 2021, Gana and his Senegal teammates received a hero’s welcome as thousands lined the streets of his birthplace Dakar — the country’s capital — as the Lions of Teranga paraded their maiden AFCON trophy.
That, too, was a gradual process that required patience.
When Aliou Cissé became manager in 2015, after Senegal failed to qualify for AFCON in 2013, he saw his side exit at the group stage of the competition in 2015. They then reached the quarter-finals in 2017, before finishing runners-up two years later.
Finally, in February last year, Cissé’s side triumphed over a formidable Egypt side on penalties after a tense goalless draw in the competition of the final.
“It’s so important… I believe the answer is not changing manager every time you hit a difficult moment, because every new manager means starting a process again,” explains Gana. “I hope we get time together as a group now because we all believe in the manager here.
“The players have a good relationship with the manager.
“In the beginning, there can be struggles but we have to stay together and give time to build a strong team.
“I’ve seen it myself with Senegal. I was one of the leaders in the team because I had the experience.
“When we first came together as a group, we were on the bottom, we hadn’t qualified for the AFCON or World Cup.
“The key was to keep doing the same things — same ways, same rules and the hard work.
“Every new player who came into the international set up knew those rules, or quickly learned them, and we kept that.
“When we first came together as a group — me, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sadio Mane, Cheikou Kouyate and some other new players, it was not the same.
“When [Cissé] arrived, he set out new ways, told us we were his leaders and we were all together, going in the same way.
“At the beginning it was difficult and people were saying, ‘No, no, Senegal will never win the AFCON’, but we kept going, kept believing and the country believed in the coach.
“They gave him time to build a strong team and now you see the result.
“That’s why I believe Everton has to do the same.”
Gana's affection for the Club’s captain is underlined when, upon leaving the media room at Finch Farm, he is presented a book of “Everton legends’ autographs” by a guest. A friendly chat and photograph opportunity would follow, but first the all-important question…
“Where is Seamus’ signature?”