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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Senegal topple toothless Poland as underdogs seize control of World Cup Group H

African side's win follows Japan's unexpected victory over Colombia earlier in the day

Idrissa Gueye, second left, created Senegal's first goal when his shot was deflected in during the 2-1 win over Poland. Felipe Trueba / EPA
Idrissa Gueye, second left, created Senegal's first goal when his shot was deflected in during the 2-1 win over Poland. Felipe Trueba / EPA

Senegal are no strangers to making fine first impressions. Sixteen years after a seismic shock came the sort of surprise to suggest Aliou Cisse may be spearheading another charge into World Cup history.

Cisse captained Senegal to their astonishing opening-game victory over holders France in 2002. As manager, he became the scourge of Europeans again.

Poland and Colombia were supposed to be the favourites in Group H. Instead, they sit side by side at the bottom of the pool after the Senegalese and the Japanese pulled off twin upsets. The Lions of Teranga recorded Africa’s first win to defeat the top seeds on what ranked as a disastrous day for the team ranked eighth in the world.

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Poland could count themselves luckless, but they were also toothless for long spells and, when Senegal’s second goal was scored, clueless. It has the potential to form part of the autopsy of a campaign.

It stemmed from an awful backpass by Grzegorz Krychowiak. Wojciech Szczesny came way too far out of his penalty area and was caught in no man’s land as M’Baye Niang darted past him. An open goal was his first international strike.

Polish complaints concentrated on the way Niang, who had gone off for treatment, returned to the pitch, but he was waved back on by referee Nawaf Shukralla and their defending was embarrassing.

The involvement of substitute centre-back Jan Bednarek also highlighted the way manager Adam Nawalka’s half-time switch to 3-4-3 backfired while Szczesny, sent off in the Euro 2012 curtain-raiser, again began a tournament in lamentable fashion.

The way Poland fell apart was all the more unexpected given the sterility at the start. There was the curiosity that the opening goal came before there was a shot on target.

There were few off target until, when teed up by Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye let fly from 20 yards and the ball took a sizeable deflection off Thiago Cionek, wrong-footing Szczesny. If Cionek felt both unlucky and partly responsible, the Brazil-born centre-back’s presence was also a consequence of a combination of misfortune and misjudgement.

Poland’s premier defender, Kamil Glik, was absent after injuring himself attempting an overhead kick in training. They missed him when each goal was conceded.

In contrast, Senegal could savour their solidity. They have now only lost twice in 30 games and, with Salif Sane heading wide when he ought to have scored, their margin of victory could have been greater.

Cisse has been criticised for his pragmatism, but it paid off. He had plumped for Niang in attack and the former France Under-21 international rewarded him with a display of elusive, powerful running.

His selection contained a surprise with captain Cheikhou Kouyate only a substitute. Mane instead captained Senegal, as Cisse had on their run to the quarter-finals 16 years ago, and had company, with Krychowiak paying particularly close attention to the Uefa Champions League final scorer. Yet he collected an early caution for tugging the Liverpool winger, risked a red card before the interval and was partly culpable for Senegal’s second goal.

His afternoon was given a flattering sheen when he headed Poland’s consolation goal, meeting Kamil Grosicki’s free kick. His was nevertheless a wretched display, even his chance was taken in the manner of Robert Lewandowski.

But then Poland’s record scorer produced an exercise in anonymity for much of the match. Lewandowski delivered 16 goals in qualifying but his record in tournaments is less impressive. The Bayern Munich man completed the group stage of Euro 2016 without recording a shot on target. He at least improved upon that with a free kick that he won and that goalkeeper Khadim N'Diaye parried.

Otherwise, however, Lewandowski was muted. So were Poland, showing a strange lack of urgency and incision. Arkadiusz Milik directed one shot into the advertising hoardings, but coughed up possession time and again and was hauled off. Piotr Zielinski, so impressive for Napoli this season, was another who failed to do himself justice.

It means that Poland’s World Cup, which promised so much, could in effect be ended by Colombia on Sunday.

Yet they began with something to celebrate as one of their great servants, Jakub Blaszczykowski, won his 100th cap. He is only the third Pole to reach the milestone, but a landmark occasion was curtailed.

Poland’s best player in Euro 2016 was limping before he was removed at half-time for Bednarek. Lewandowski could become Poland’s next centurion if they reach the quarter-finals. On this evidence, however, that looks distinctly unlikely.