AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) - England skipper Harry Kane has been trying to taper his form in international tournaments so he can peak in the knockout rounds when his team need him the most - starting with Senegal in the World Cup last 16 on Sunday.
Kane has yet to find the net in Qatar for England, who were joint top scorers in the group stage with nine goals, but sits top of the assists charts with three.
He won the World Cup Golden Boot in 2018 with six goals but five of those came in the group stages and he looked sluggish, heavy-legged and tired by the time England lost in the semi-final to Croatia.
The 29-year-old said on Saturday that he hoped to reverse that trend in Qatar -- just as he did at last year's Euros when he scored four goals in the knockout rounds, with England eventually making the final where they lost a shootout to Italy.
"I think it probably goes back to 2018 in the World Cup. From a physical and maybe mental side of things we started the tournament great, I started the tournament with lots of goals and we used a lot of energy," Kane told reporters.
"As the tournament went on I felt like my performances maybe dipped in the latter stages. I was conscious before the Euros of trying to make it the other way. I was trying to make sure that, physically and mentally, I was in the best place for the knockout stages.
"I kind of carried that into this tournament. I would love to be sitting here with two or three goals now, but I think the group stage has gone well. Going into the knockout stage, I feel really good. I feel fit and sharp."
Senegal qualified for the knockout stages for the first time in 20 years despite losing leading forward Sadio Mane to injury before the tournament but England coach Gareth Southgate said he was not surprised by their progress.
"Sadio is obviously an incredible player and every team would want to have him, but what we've seen with the team of Senegal is that they've become very strong in his absence," he said.
"They have shown great spirit through losing him so we know that it doesn't make a difference to the level of the fixture for tomorrow."
England are unbeaten against African teams in their 20 encounters but have never met Senegal, who were crowned African champions earlier this year under coach Aliou Cisse.
Senegal also have several players who ply their trade in the English Premier League and second-tier Championship, led by skipper Kalidou Koulibaly and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy who both play for Chelsea.
"We've been very impressed. We know that they're African champions - very proud, great competitive spirit, a lot of belief in the team," Southgate added.
"They have some excellent individual players who can cause problems - a good structure to the team as well. So I think Aliou has done a fantastic job.
"They were very unlucky not to qualify from the group in Russia (in 2018) and they've deservedly done it this time so we know exactly the size of the task ahead of us."
Senegal failed to progress from their group in 2018 when they were pipped by Japan on the fair play rule, which compared the sides' disciplinary records in their three matches.
(Reporting by Rohith Nair in Al Rayyan; Editing by Ken Ferris)