Lions roar against lacklustre Poland

M’Baye Niang re-entered the field of play with nearly every player on both sides in Poland’s attacking half. The Senegalese striker had left the field after landing awkwardly in an aerial duel with Jan Bednarek, and he had just received clearance to return to the fray from Bahraini referee Nawaf Shukralla. On its own, the decision to allow him to return was the kind of call that is made every day. On this day, however, his return coincided with an inexplicable backwards heave from Grzegorz Krychowiak which caught everyone off guard. Niang pounced. He took a touch to evade the foolish charge of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny and had no competition as he stroked the ball into an open net. The protests had started even before the goal was scored, but they fell on deaf ears. With the Lions of Teranga already leading by a goal, Niang’s stroke of good fortune was ultimately enough to seal a historic victory.

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M’Baye Niang (left) beats Łukasz Piszczek shortly before Senegal opened the scoring. Niang’s win, and subsequent run into the attacking third, was the catalyst for the goal.

In terms of World Cup upsets, Senegal are now repeat offenders. Back in 2002, their only previous World Cup appearance, they shocked the French on the tournament’s opening day, and against a well-rounded Polish side they were looking to do it again. The game started openly, with both sides looking to play the ball quickly, but there were few clear-cut chances despite the pace of the game. Neither side quite showed the requisite composure within the final third, with neither side recording a shot on target in the first half hour. M’Baye Niang missed a particularly good chance after Youssouf Sabaly beat one opponent and played an incisive pass through the Polish defence, only for Niang to take an ultimately inaccurate shot instead of passing to a wide open Mame Biram Diouf. Soon after, Kamil Grosicki missed a golden opportunity to head home from fairly close range, and it seemed like the chances would begin to flow. They didn’t. Instead, it was the attacking errors that began to add up as the game progressed, with the play often very ugly.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Senegal took the lead via a very unfortunate deflection. There had been signs that the pace of the game was beginning to lift as the first half drew to a close, but neither side had really looked like finding the back of the net. It was an innocuous piece of play which started it. Niang outmuscled Łukasz Piszczek on the halfway line, and immediately burst into space. He found Sadio Mané near the edge of the penalty area, and the dynamic Senegalese star took a slight pause before honouring Idrissa Gueye’s forward run from midfield. Poland were scrambling to get back, and Gueye’s originally off-target shot hit Thiago Cionek in mid stride as the centre-back ran towards the goal. Wojciech Szczęsny was already committed, and didn’t stand a chance as the ball drastically changed direction.

Robert Lewandowski had been shut down by Kalidou Koulibaly and Salif Sané in the first half, but he appeared to come to life early in the second. With a good touch he breezed past Koulibaly, and was only stopped by Sané’s professional foul just outside the box. The Polish captain took the resultant free-kick and forced Khadim N’Diaye into making a full-length diving saved, and it seemed like he had found his best form. He didn’t produce anything similar for the rest of the match. Niang capitalised on Poland’s catastrophic lapse a few minutes later, and the game as a contest seemed over. Poland continued to fight, but none of their efforts seemed to come to anything. Then, with less than five minutes of normal time remaining, Krychowiak stepped up to head home Grosicki’s perfectly delivered free-kick. It presented Poland with a potential lifeline, a chance to salvage something from the wreck of their underwhelming effort against a well-organised Senegalese defence.

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The Senegalese fans in the crowd in action during the match. The crowd was dominated by Polish fans, but Senegal’s supporters still managed to make themselves heard.

The goal ensured that Senegal had to endure some nervous moments, but Poland’s charge was too little and too late. As the final whistle went, the players and the small but vocal section of Senegalese fans in the Otkritie Stadium could finally celebrate. On this day, against a disappointing Polish side who will expect better for the rest of the tournament, Senegal showed flair and solidity. On this day, the tactically astute Adam Nawałka was thoroughly outcoached by Senegal’s dreadlocked manager, 2002 captain Aliou Cissé. On this day, Senegal took another big scalp, although it’s hard to tell if we should keep calling them upsets.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Poland 1 (Krychowiak 86)
Senegal 2 (Cionek 37 og, Niang 60)
Referee: Nawaf Shukralla (Bah)
Poland (4-2-3-1): Szczęsny – Piszczek (Bereszyński 83), Cionek, Pazdan, Rybus; Krychowiak, Zieliński; Błaszczykowski (Bednarek 46), Milik (Kownacki 73), Grosicki; Lewandowski.
Senegal (4-4-2): K N’Diaye – Wagué, Sané, Koulibaly, Sabaly; Sarr, A N’Diaye, Gueye, Mané; Diouf (N’Doye 62), Niang (Konaté 75).

Top 5
1. M’Baye Niang (Senegal)
Niang wreaked havoc throughout with his devastating pace and his imposing physical presence. He played a key role in both goals, outmuscling Piszczek to set up the first and scoring the second himself after a fortuitous piece of timing. He got into good positions, and looked like Senegal’s most dangerous attacker.
2. Salif Sané (Senegal)
Sané was the tallest man on the field, and he took advantage of his immense size and his remarkable athleticism to dominate in the box. His combination with Koulibaly was very effective in nullifying the influence of Polish star Lewandowski, and he could be in for a big tournament.
3. Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)
There was very little to split the performances of Koulibaly and Sané on the day, and Koulibaly was just as important as his slightly taller partner in keeping Poland at bay. He played a key role in shutting down Poland’s biggest stars, and was just as hard to beat as Sané.
4. Michał Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan, at his consistent best, was one of few highlights in an otherwise disappointing Polish display. He performed well at the back, staving off some dangerous attacks and acquitting himself very well against Senegal’s very pacey forward line. In the absence of regular defensive partner Kamil Glik he more than held his own.
5. Khadim N’Diaye (Senegal)
N’Diaye put in a commanding second half performance to see Senegal over the line, complete with a series of aggressive aerial claims in the latter stages of the victory. His athletic save to deny a well-struck Lewandowski free-kick was a particular highlight, and his strong performance is a good sign for the Lions of Teranga.

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