Following Japan’s upset victory over Colombia, Senegal and Poland—already the two group favourites to start the day—kicked off Tuesday’s second match knowing a victory would make them clear favourites to top Group H and advance to the knockout round, and much of the game played out in appropriately cagey fashion.
Senegal have looked a technical and talented side on the rise under manager Aliou Cissé, but they do have some questions surrounding their defence, and that has led to them struggling at times to find the right team balance as they seek to cover for that with a more conservative approach, as they did here against a strong Poland side.
The best early chance came from Lyon and Senegal left back Youssouf Sabaly breaking at pace, skipping past one man and drilling a through-ball for M’Baye Niang. It was a move encapsulating so much of the promise of this side—and the hopes for what they could be if they find better balance—but Niang could only drag wide.
Outside that moment, though, Senegal stuck to a largely a conservative approach, seeking to protect against their defensive question marks but in the process stunting their attack and taking a lot of the potential for excitement out of the game. Tactically, though, it made sense in a match between group favourites. And it paid off.
Late in the half, Idrissa Gueye was set up by Senegal captain Sadio Mané on a break. Poland looked to have snuffed it out but Gueye took a speculative shot that pinballed off two defenders—the final touch by Thaigo Cionek, credited with the own goal—and into the net as a helpless Wojciech Szczesny watched on.
Then, 15 minutes into the second, an unbelievably reckless back-pass by PSG midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak gifted Senegal their second of the night as Niang closed quickly, beating a Polish defender as well as goalkeeper Szczesny to the ball and finishing into the empty net. It looked a goal to seal the game and make them group favourites.
Late and against the run of play, Poland finally did claw one back to set up a nervy final few minutes plus stoppage time for a Senegal side that deserved all three points for thoroughly handling their opponents but in the end risked seeing two of them slip away. Senegal, though, managed to hold off Poland’s strong final push.
It may not have been an exciting performance, but it was certainly a tactically sensible one, and if this Senegal side can find a way to free up their talented attack without sacrificing defensive solidity here at the World Cup they could end up far more than just the side that finishes top of Group H.