Before Poland vs Senegal kicked off at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, every single African team that played in the 2018 Fifa World Cup had lost their respective matches.
Tunisia conceded a late goal to lose against England, Morocco conceded a stoppage-time own goal against Iran, Egypt conceded a last-gasp header against Uruguay. And in the late match on Tuesday, Egypt would go on to lose 3-1 against Russia to all but confirm their exit from the tournament.
In many ways, this hasn’t been a tournament to remember for the teams from Africa. But like a tiny sliver of light in an otherwise dark tunnel, Senegal defeated Poland, the team ranked eighth in the world.
One would have to stop short of calling this an upset because Senegal, arguably, are the best Africa have to offer (especially with the circus surrounding Mohammad Salah and his fitness). This team was fast, this team was physical and in Aliou Cisse they had a coach who understands African football and what the World Cup means to Senegal more than anyone else.
Indeed, with Cisse as the captain, Senegal had scripted history in 2002, defeating holders France 1-0 in the opening game of their only other World Cup appearance – which would also turn out to be the best ever for an African nation.
Cisse has been there, done that. He has lived through the highs of winning and progressing in Japan-South Korea and he has experienced the heartbreak of losing a hard-fought quarter-final to the ridiculous Golden Goal that was the norm in those days.
And with him back at the touchline as the coach, with all his animated reactions, Senegal managed to blow Group H wide open. If you thought Poland and Colombia were favourites to go through, think again. The Asian and African teams have something to say about that.
Fortune favours the brave
Cliches can be annoying but just occasionally, they help describe the situation perfectly. Fortune did favour the brave Teranga Lions on Tuesday, on more than one occasion.
Let’s take the first goal. Idrissa Gana Gueye’s shot was tame at best, heading wide, without Wojciech Szczesny needing to worry about it. But out came Thiago Cionek’s right leg, deflecting the ball into the net, with the former Arsenal keeper completely wrong-footed.
The phrase former Arsenal keeper is key here, because for the second Senegal goal, Szczesny showed why he can be utterly frustrating despite his immeasurable talent. Bulk of the blame will, of course, fall on Polish No 10 Grzegorz Krychowiak, who hit a half-baked back pass from Senegal’s half and expected either the last defender or goalkeeper to cover for it.
Szczesny, over-eager, had come rushing out and put off Jan Bednarek, who stopped in his tracks to left his custodian deal with the mess. Keenly waiting to pounce, however, was Mbaye Niang – the man of the match. His first touch to lob Szczesny and his electric pace was enough to finish the move off by slotting the ball into an empty net.
But once again, there was a good chunk of fortune involved in the goal. Niang had gone off the pitch to receive treatment a few moments before the goal and the referee waved him on to the pitch almost at the exact time as Krychowiak was hitting that fatal back-pass. The defenders were caught short not just by the under-cooked nature of that pass, but also by Niang appearing into the fray out of nowhere.
It’s tough to blame the officials here, especially because Niang was allowed to come on when a set-piece by Poland was fizzling out. It was just one of those impeccably (or horribly, if you are Polish fan) timed moment that set off a chain of events ending in Senegal’s second.
The other aspect of Senegal’s win was restricting the vaunted Poland attack to just four shots on target in the entire match. That was largely due to the ineffectiveness of Robert Lewandowski. The Poland captain came into the tournament on the back of a 41-goal season with Bayern Munich and was the top-scorer in the World Cup qualifying as well.
It was known that Poland’s defence is their problem area and the onus lied on the captain and his supporting act to deliver the goals. As it turned out, he just produced two moments of genuine quality in the entire match – a lovely run through the heart of Senegal’s defence early in the second half, that resulted in the Senegalese defenders back-tracking furiously. He was eventually fouled, and took the resulting free-kick – a curling effort that was on target but palmed away the goalkeeper N’Diaye.
That was it. That was the sum total of Lewandowski’s key contributions on the night. He was marshalled brilliantly but the Senegal centerbacks and was let down by the lack of quality service from his own midfield.
At the biggest stage, Lewandowski once again failed to live up to the expectations.
The impressive Niang
While all the attention was on the Lewandowski vs Sadio Mane match-up, it was clear from the word go that Senegal had a better supporting cast for their star man compared to Poland. Headlining that supporting cast was M’baye Niang.
The 23-year-old forward has had a troubled career so far, after promising much. His years at AC Milan proved underwhelming and so did a loan spell with Watford. Being born in France, he only declared for Senegal as late as October 2017.
But putting all that behind him, the youngster, given a starting role by Cisse, produced an impressive performance against Poland to put himself back in the limelight. His pace and physicality trouble the Polish defence from the word go.
In an impressive first half, he missed a chance to put the Teranga Lions ahead when freed down the left flank but made amends in the second half – pouncing on the defensive confusion outlined earlier, to give his side the two-goal cushion that proved decisive in the end.
While Mane did not have the best of games, those around him stepped up. It wasn’t just Niang. On the right wing Ismaila Sarr using his pace to give nightmares for the left side of Poland’s defence. “We have talent that we want to show to the world,” said coach Cisse at the end of the match and his wards did just that.
And the result was yet another famous opening game victory for Senegal, 16 years on from that famous night in 2002. This win, as Shakira would sing, was for Africa.