In Group H, Senegal powered past Poland on Tuesday, to win its opening game 2-1.
OK, so I was very wrong about Group H being predictable. Already there have been two shocking upsets served to turn this group right on its head, and it is certainly now the group to watch in this World Cup.
Poland vs. Senegal was a game thought to be decided by individual performances from both sides’ stars.
Poland striker Robert Lewandowski was out to prove why the Polish were rightfully pegged as one of the favorites to reach the Semi-Finals of the tournament, while Liverpool midfielder Sadio Mane was ready to carry the Senegalese in just their second ever World Cup.
However, neither players took the game by the scruffs of their necks.
Expectedly, the game began with both teams trading spells of possession in the opening 10 minutes. Both teams tried to exploit the space behind the opposing set of center backs, with Senegal floating balls over the top toward strikers M’Baye Niang and Mame Diouf.
Poland found considerably early success playing down the flanks and through wingers Jacub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki, with the latter having a few half chances fall to him in the opening 15 minutes.
Senegal had the first clear chance of the game, as defender Youssouf Sabaly intercepted a ball in his own defensive third and sprung Niang, who fired wide from just inside the box.
Overall, the first 25 minutes of the game consisted of half chances, as each team pushed for a breakthrough. Lewandowski and Mane were kept quiet for the most part, apart from a teasing half-volley from Lewandowski that Senegal keeper Khadim N’Diaye saw comfortably wide.
A scrappy game produced a workman’s-like goal in the 38th minute, with Senegal finding the unexpected breakthrough.
Niang shook off a strong aerial challenge from Poland’s Lukasz Piszczek before finding Mane 25 yards from goal. Mane cleverly slipped in midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye who fired a low shot, which appeared to be headed wide of Poland keeper Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
However, the ball took a nasty ricochet off of Polish defender Thiago Cionek and beat Szczęsny at his near post.
Senegal almost doubled their lead through a set piece a few minutes later, as Sabaly nodded a Senegalese corner ball just over the bar.
In the second half, it was the losing side that started on the front foot, as a tactical change from Polish manager Adam Nawalka saw Poland switch to a five-man defensive setup, pushing Arkadiusz Milik wide to give Lewandowski more support.
Nawalka’s shrewd tactical change immediately paid dividends for the Polish, as their star striker won the ball back at the halfway line, skipped past a defender, and won a free kick 25 yards away from goal.
Nothing amounted from the free kick, but it was clear the Polish were benefitting from the new formation, with longer spells of possession.
However, despite Poland’s dominance, it was Senegal who found the next goal.
Niang later went off the pitch with an apparent injury, and while the Senegalese striker waited on the sidelines to re-enter the game, Polish midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak looped an awkward clearance in the direction of his own keeper.
In the moment, the play appeared to be dead. Appeared to be.
Yet the fourth official made the interesting decision to let Niang back onto the pitch as the ball was played back, and the striker raced in behind, gathered up the loose ball, and took a touch past the charging Szczęsny before slotting home on the open net.
It was, of course, a controversial decision to let Niang back onto the pitch. Usually, the fourth official will avoid providing a clear situational advantage to one side. However, Niang was sprung clear, because he was allowed to come on in the midst of a potential breakaway.
Poland had their chances to get back into the game, and Milik should have done better with his chance at the near post that came from a low cross from Piszczek. Instead, the Polish forward pulled his shot wide and the chance was gone.
Milik was eventually replaced by budding star Dawid Kownacki who made an immediate impact, forcing a save from N’Diaye after a cross from Maciej Rybus from the left flank.
Poland got a goal back with four minutes remaining in the game, again through an interesting decision from the referee.
Poland won a free kick in the Senegal half, and the referee allowed Grosicki to take the free kick before Senegal defense was set. Grosicki swung the ball in, and it was Krychowiak who nodded the ball into the far corner, after winning the free kick moments earlier.
Krychowiak’s goal set up a chaotic end to the match, with Poland throwing numbers forward. However Senegal put out fire after fire, and the Africans completed the second consecutive upset of the group.
My Man of the Match:
Full Match Stats:
Poland 10 — Shots — 8 Senegal
Poland 59% — Possession — 41% Senegal
Poland 8 — Fouls — 15 Senegal
Poland 1 — Yellow Cards — 2 Senegal
Poland 0 — Red Cards — 0 Senegal