SENEGAL deservedly defeated Poland in a game of few chances to claim the first win by an African team at the World Cup – although there was a hint of controversy about their second goal.
M’Baye Niang sprinted back on to the field of play after injury and immediately intercepted a backpass from midfield, beating former Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and Southampton defender Jan Bednarek to the ball.
He then slotted into an empty net – to the confusion and disgust of several Poland players, who protested in vain to referee Nawaf Shukralla.
The Lions of Teranga had taken the lead shortly before the break when a shot from Everton’s Idrissa Gueye took a huge deflection off the unfortunate Thiago Cionek.
Poland created little, with striker Robert Lewandowski feeding on scraps and heavily marked by Senegal’s huge central defensive pairing of Salif Sane and Kalidou Koulibaly.
But they ensured a frantic finale when Grzegorz Krychowiak headed home a free-kick at the far post.
The result came hours after Japan had defeated 10-man Colombia in Group H’s opening game – and one of the qualifiers could go on to play England in the last 16.
It was played four, lost four for the African teams so far in Russia before Senegal and Poland became the final two sides to make their bow at this World Cup.
The three north African teams – Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia – had conceded late goals in narrow defeats, while Nigeria were a poor second to Croatia.
But playing in their second World Cup, Senegal showed a passion and physicality that their seeded opponents could not handle.
Aliou Cisse’s team were wayward in their finishing – epitomised by one horribly miscued first-half strike by the lively Niang – and some of their decision-making saw good openings wasted.
But they played with great ambition and purpose and showed enough to suggest they could well qualify from what is regarded as a very open group.
Like Lewandowski, Liverpool’s Sadio Mane had dominated the pre-match billing, but was heavily marked and posed little forward threat.
But that will surely be of little concern to the skipper as his team hope to emulate the team of 2002, who reached the quarter-finals.
And their superb post-match celebrations, dancing in the corner in front of their small but jubilant supporters, suggested the tournament will be better for having them in it as long as possible.