1600 BST, Tuesday 19 June, Otkrytie Arena (Moscow), ITV
It’s been a long time coming for both Poland and Senegal, but they’ve finally returned to the World Cup after years away.
The Polish are making their first appearance since back-to-back trips in 2002 and 2006, whilst Senegal appear in their second-ever World Cup, after making a surprising run to the quarter-finals in 2002.
Poland made it to Russia via an impressive qualification run that featured eight wins and 28 goals. It was enough for the Poles to earn a spot in Pot 1, thus drawing into a rather winnable group that also features 2014 quarter-finalists Colombia and underdog Japan.
Paced by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored the most goals in qualification (16), Poland seem talented enough to advance to the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.
Spearheaded by Liverpool star Sadio Mane, Senegal didn’t lack much in production by scoring 17 times while qualifying through Africa. Though Poland’s potent offence will put them to the test, Senegal might be up to the task after allowing three goals in their final seven qualification matches.
Manager Aliou Cisse was the captain of Senegal’s 2002 World Cup team, so he can at least convey that experience through his preparation, even though he has drawn criticism from pundits and fans alike for some of his tactics. However, like Poland and Colombia, Senegal believe they can finish atop this group.
This will be the first time Poland and Senegal have faced each other.
Last Time Out
Poland 4-0 Lithuania [International Friendly]
Lewandowski scored in the 19th and 32nd minutes, and Dawid Kownacki and 32-year-old Jakub Blaszczykowski added goals in the second half Tuesday to dominate over-matched Lithuania, which showed why it won’t be in Russia over the next month.
Poland enter the World Cup having won two of their last three friendly matches.
While Poland continue to display their offensive prowess, blanking Lithuania, regardless of their calibre, was a step in the right direction.
The White and Reds allowed four goals in the previous two contests and blew a 2-0 lead in drawing with Chile on June 8th. Their latest result should provide confidence that their backline can control a match no matter who the opponent.
Senegal 2-0 South Korea [International Friendly]
It took time, but Senegal finally put fellow World Cup participants South Korea to bed after benefiting from an own goal by the visitors in the 67th minute and Moussa Konaté’s strike in extra-time Monday.
The result was much needed for Senegal after falling 2-0 to Croatia three days earlier.
Senegal’s two goals against South Korea also equaled their total from the previous four friendlies.
Whether they are back on track offensively remains to be seen, but at least there is something positive going into this tournament and can take some heat off Cisse.
The big news coming out of the Polish camp is that defender Kamil Glik will be with the team in Russia, and reportedly could play in their final group game against Japan on June 28.
Glik, who injured his shoulder in training, was originally believed to miss the World Cup, but he will play some part. Jan Bednarek, Thiago Cionek or Bartosz Bereszynski could see time at the back before Glik returns.
If manager Adam Nawalka opts to use two forwards to start, 24-year-old Arkadiusz Milik is the likely candidate to team with Lewandowski. Milik should still see action as a substitute if that’s not the case.
Cisse has alternated between Abdoulaye Diallo and 33-year-old Khadim N’Diaye in goal during the warm-ups. N’Diaye started against South Korea, and could get the call for the opener over Diallo, who featured sporadically for Ligue I side Rennes this season.
Ismaila Sarr is a talented 20-year-old forward who scored five goals for Rennes this season and should provide some quality depth for Senegal in their 4-3-3 formation.
It would make sense that Stoke’s Badou Ndiaye is featured in the starting XI even though that has not been the case of late.
Key Battle: Robert Lewandowski (Poland) vs Kalidou Koulibaly (Senegal)
Senegal’s primary focus is to stop Lewandowski, who scored four times in Poland’s last three friendlies and is making things look easy. However, go back to the last two European Championships when the Polish striker scored just twice over eight matches.
The World Cup stage is even bigger and the pressure will increase for Lewandowski to continue his remarkable scoring form – over 40 goals in all competitions for Bayern Munich this season. It will be interesting to see if he can handle it.
The good news for Polish fans is that Lewandowski has a decent supporting cast who can take the load off.
Playmaker Kamil Grosicki and midfielder Piotr Zieliński have been given more opportunity by Nawalka to contribute while Milik – five goals for Napoli – has the potential to be a strong running mate if they incorporate two forwards.
But the challenge for Lewandowski comes right out of the gate where Koulibaly, who turns 27 the day after this match, will be waiting. An impressive physical presence, the Napoli central defender leads a backline that helped Senegal hold their last five friendly opponents to just three goals.
He also scored five goals this season in the Serie A, including a late header off a corner to beat Juventus in April.
Poland doesn’t have a two-way presence the calibre of Koulibaly, and while Lewandowski might be the best finisher on the pitch in Moscow, Koulibaly might prove to be the X-factor of the match.
History should mean something
The long drought between World Cup appearances for both nations shouldn’t be understated. It’s not like Poland and Senegal are just happy to be in Russia, they have expectations that exceed past the group stage. And with that comes pressure.
The stakes are higher, and the best players in the world can suffer from a case of stagefright when put into a situation they have never been in before, especially on the international level.
Whilst Senegal enjoyed a stellar World Cup debut 16 years ago and Poland have a pair of third-place finishes (1974 and 1982) to their credit, those accomplishments were so long ago that they mean nothing.
Poland must play like the team that pounced on Lithuania and not the one that lost 1-0 to Nigeria earlier in 2018 and were demolished 4-0 by Denmark for their only qualifying defeat.
Senegal, meanwhile, showed signs of mediocrity in three consecutive friendly draws against Uzbekistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Luxembourg. With parity in Group H, Senegal can’t afford to show that form again.
Who else will step up?
Lewandowski, Mane and Koulibaly are the three best players on the pitch, but this contest has the feeling of one in which others will have a significant hand in the outcome.
Who will be the next man – or men – up?
Senegal’s Idrissa Gueye, one of the few consistent bright spots for Everton this season, could be the most underrated defensive midfielder in this tournament and has the game to make life tough for the opposition in the middle of the field.
Teammate Keita Balde, meanwhile, scored eight league goals for Monaco this season and expects to be active.
For Poland, 23-year-old Karol Linetty is a hard worker who brings both intelligence and skill to Poland’s midfield and fits in well with Grzegorz Krychowiak amidst their 4-2-3-1 formation. Lewandowski has also sung the praises of the Linetty, who started 21 of 29 league games for Sampdoria.
Prediction: Poland 2-1 Senegal
Poland scored six goals in the first half of their last three matches and expect that early production to continue in Moscow.
Polish fans have reason to be concerned about their team’s defence, but with the proper adjustments, the backline talent of Lukasz Piszczek and Michal Pazdan should be enough for Poland to prevail.
Cisse has often been harassed for his tactical decisions and that may again rear its ugly head, but Senegal are too talented from the midfield up to be shut out.
This could be the most competitive match within Group H, then again, that can be said for just about every match within this group.
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