The tightest of World Cup groups becomes tighter still. On their first return to this tournament for the first time since their remarkable run to the quarter-finals in South Korea and Japan, Senegal produced Group H’s second upset in a day by beating an often-underwhelming and at times diabolical Poland.
If the own goal by centre-half Thiago Cionek that gave Senegal their lead was not bad enough, Mbaye Niang was allowed to controversially double the west Africans’ advantage on the hour mark after catastrophic blunders by Grzegorz Krychowiak and Wojciech Szczesny - a under-hit backpass and a ill-judged attempt to clear - combined.
Krychowiak, a midfielder exiled at and then relegated with West Bromwich Albion this season, would reduce the arrears with a header late on but too late. Aliou Cissé’s Senegal will not strike fear into too many at this World Cup but were undoubtedly the better of the two sides and deserving of the three points.
An hour before this early-evening kick-off, well-fancied Colombia’s 10-man defeat to Japan - supposedly the weakest members of Group H - heightened the stakes in Moscow, giving both these sides something to capitalise on.
Neither, though, showed enough technical quality in the opening 45 minutes to suggest that they will reach the second round comfortably, let alone progress far into the competition. Senegal were at least ambitious, belying the reputation their manager has earned for favouring a conservative, safety-first approach.
Cissé, captain of those 2002 quarter-finalists, encouraged his players to show more ferocity during the first half by clawing cat-like at the air from the touchline and one Lion of Teranga, the eye-catching Niang, threatened early down the left with his sharp movement on the left flank.
Moments of true quality were few and far between, though, and particularly for Poland. Robert Lewandowski ended the qualifying campaign for this tournament as the European section’s top scorer, yet here he spearheaded a side lacking cohesion, in front of a midfield playing far below its reputation.
This tournament’s opening round of group fixtures appeared to have found an excellent candidate for its first goalless draw but a breakthrough was found eight minutes from the interval and fittingly, it came through two imperfect pieces of play.
Idrissa Gana Gueye, the Everton midfielder, found an opening for Senegal but shanked an effort from the edge of penalty area, sending the ball wide of the left-hand post. Still, he ended up celebrating. A tame deflection off Cionek - whose attempt to block the shot was poor - diverted the ball past a helpless Wojciech Szczesny.
If either side deserved to lead, it was Senegal. Cissé’s players had at least shown a greater intent, while to describe Poland as ‘one-dimensional’ would be to credit them with one dimension too many.
Lewandowski took matters into his own hands soon after half-time. First charging through on Khadim Ndiaye’s goal from the halfway line, he then won a free-kick from Salif Sané on the edge area. There was no question who would take it but Lewandowski’s effort, though powerful, was punched away.
By and large though, Poland were still the mess of miscommunication and wayward play that had unimpressed in the first half. It would soon cost them again.
A brainless backpass by Krychowiak, lofted high and aimlessly into the air, invited Szczesny to rush out but also alerted Niang, who had only just been granted permission to re-enter the field of play. The Torino winger won the first touch, rounding Szczesny. His second rolled the ball into an unguarded net. Poland’s protests against Niang’s reintroduction were ignored.
Krychowiak’s header came five minutes from time but so meagre had been Poland’s attack up to that point, chances of turnaround remained slim. The group appears so tightly-contested that Nawalka can retain hopes of qualification. Yet if they do, Belgium nor England - the favourites to progress in adjacent Group G - should not be overly worried about failing to reach the quarter-finals.
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