Sadio Mane magic not needed for Senegal as Poland push self destruct
MOSCOW -- Three quick thoughts on Poland 1-2 Senegal in Group H at the World Cup on Tuesday afternoon.
1. Senegal well set in intriguing group after victory
If you confidently picked the two qualifiers from Group H before the tournament, the certainty of your opinions is to be admired. This looked the most open group in Russia, and so it has proved: after Japan surprised Colombia earlier in the day, Senegal beat Poland 2-1 on a muggy evening in Moscow.
They won thanks to an own-goal from Thiago Cionek and M'Baye Niang gobbling up a second after a defensive mess, but this was still a terrific performance from Aliou Cisse's side, and must make them favourites to win the group.
The first half was largely terrible, and it was shaping up to be the first goalless draw of what has been a terrifically exciting World Cup so far. Passes weren't just misplaced but drilled 20 yards beyond where they should have been. Shots dribbled at goalkeepers, or floated wide. In some respects it's reassuring that a group of footballers good enough to play on the greatest stage were capable of such uselessness.
But in the 38th minute, the deadlock was broken in appropriate fashion. Idrissa Gueye lined up a shot from about 25 yards out, didn't hit it with any significant power but Cionek, only in the team because of Kamil Glik's injury, stuck out a leg and diverted it past Wojciech Szczesny, who cursed an unfair world.
The Juventus keeper couldn't really blame anyone for Senegal's second though, which came around the hour mark. After a brief spell where the teams exchanged looping headers, Grzegorz Krychowiak hooked the ball back towards his own goal, from inside his own half.
Jan Bednarek, the Southampton defender who came on at half-time, didn't seem to see Niang sprint past him, Szczesny charged out of his goal but too late, and Niang nicked the ball past him and rolled into an empty net.
Poland might have complained about Niang, who had just been off for treatment and was waved on to the pitch, sprinting directly on to Krychowiak's awful pass. But to complain at too much length would be to ignore their own slapstick defending.
Krychowiak redeemed himself a little by heading in a late consolation but despite a late flurry of attacks, Poland couldn't grab an equaliser. What promised to be the most interesting group in the tournament has opened in fine style.
2. Mane magic thin on the ground but it didn't matter
Senegal might have won this game thanks to a couple of moments of fortune: no game plan in the world can account for such a flamboyant deflection and calamitous an error. They were, to a point at least, lucky to win.
But equally they deserved the victory. They were more considered in possession, more threatening in attack and shrewder in defence, although admittedly they weren't exactly given the most testing workout by a Poland attack who will have better days.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect for Senegal is that they won without Sadio Mane really being a factor. They do not rely on Mane in the same way that Egypt look to Mohamed Salah, or Argentina count on Lionel Messi. But he's still their best player and most potent attacker.
Playing on the left flank of a four-man midfield, Mane wasn't really a factor in this game, a different role to the one he's excelled in for Liverpool, and often found himself helping out the Senegal defence.
Their more penetrative attacks came courtesy of Niang or Ismaila Sarr from the right and centre, rather than Mane from the left. The flip side of that is that tougher tests will lie ahead, and Mane will need to play better if Senegal are to have a good World Cup.
3. Slapstick Szczesny under pressure
Szczesny has spent the past season learning from the best. He was being groomed as Gianluigi Buffon's successor, and will take the gloves at Juventus next season, but he provided another example of why Juve fans would be well advised to temper their expectations.
Admittedly, Senegal's second goal wasn't entirely his fault. Quite what Krychowiak was doing trying to pass back from inside his own half only he will know, while Bednarek was seemingly taking a short nap and Niang appeared from nowhere to take advantage of the shambles.
But Szczesny has to take a hefty chunk of the blame, and it's not the first time we've seen costly errors from him. He made an almost identical mistake in a 2016 Champions League qualifier while on loan at Roma, inexplicably sprinting off his line and out of his area and donating a goal to Porto.
It was the same story here, an entirely needless and avoidable error which may not have totally cost Poland the game, but certainly put them out of it.
One wonders how costly the mistake will be for Szczesny. It wasn't a certainty he would start this game, to the point that head coach Adam Nawalka was asked if Szczesny or Lukasz Fabianski would be in his team.
The Swansea keeper was good enough last season to make the possibility of him replacing Szczesny for Poland's next game, against Colombia. Meanwhile, Mattia Perin, the keeper signed by Juve this summer, might have been watching with interest.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.