A pair of top strikers will try to put their respective sides on the path to the knockout round Tuesday when Robert Lewandowski leads Poland into their World Cup Group H opener against Sadio Mane and Liverpool.
Lewandowski was the driving force of a Poland side that stormed to qualifying by finishing atop Group E by five points over fellow World Cup participant Denmark. He scored 16 of the Bialo-Czerwoni’s 28 goals in the 10 qualifiers, and the Bayern Munich man became the country’s all-time leading scorer with 55 goals in 95 international appearances.
Mane, meanwhile, has led the Lions of Teranga back to the World Cup for the first time since their debut in 2002 when they stunned defending champion France in their first match and eventually reached the quarterfinals. The Liverpool striker scored twice in qualifying for Senegal but will look to to display the club form that led to 20 goals in all competitions and a spot in the Champions League final.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Lewandowski scored in all but one of Poland’s qualifiers, failing only in a 4-0 loss at Denmark. His 16 goals were eight more than the next-highest scorer, and Kamil Grosciki was the only other player on Poland with more than one goal as he netted three.
This is the Bialo-Czerwoni’s first World Cup appearance since 2006 when they failed to get out of group play in a quartet that included host Germany. It is their eighth appearance overall as they look to reach the knockout round for the first time since 1986. Poland’s high-water mark was a pair of third-place finishes in 1974 and 1982.
Senegal had a nervy start to qualifying in Africa, needing to record a 3-0 victory over Madagascar in the second leg of its playoff after a 2-2 draw. The final round was not without controversy as the Lions of Teranga had to replay their match at South Africa, which was originally a 2-1 loss, because referee Joseph Lamptey was adjudged for unlawfully influencing the match by the FIFA disciplinary committee.
They then defeated Bafana Bafana twice in a four-day span last November to finish five points clear atop a group that also included Burkina Faso and Cape Verde. Diafra Sakho and Cheikh N’Doye scored two goals apiece for Senegal during qualifying with Mane was one of six others with one goal.
Poland coach Adam Nawalka likely will use a 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Lewandowski the lone forward up top. Wojciech Szczeny, coming off a successful season in helping Juventus win the scudetto in Serie A, is between the sticks, with newcomer Jan Bednarak and veteran Lukasz Piszczek form a potent tandem on the right side of the back four.
Despite an uneven season in which West Bromwich Albion was relegated from the English Premier League, Grzegorz Krychowiak anchors the central midfield and will try to link with Piotr Zielinski underneath Lewandowski. Grosicki provides pace on the left flank and had a solid season for Hull City in the Championship with nine goals.
Midfielder Jakub Blaszczyowski will notch his 100th cap with his next appearance for Poland, while Lewandowski is the only other player above 65.
Aliou Cisse, a member of the 2002 World Cup team, is expected to use a 4-1-4-1 formation in which Mane and Keita Balde will push forward wide in support of Sakho. Guinea-based keeper Khadim N’Diaye gets the nod between the sticks over Rennes No. 2 Aboudalye Diallo, and Idrissa Gueye will patrol the midfield in front of the back four and is part of an all-Premier League quintet of midfielders.
Gueye is Senegal’s most-capped player with 57 appearances, followed by Mane with 52 and Moussa Sow with 50.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Poland – Piotr Zielinski (MF)
While Lewandowski is a known quantity, Zielinski could emerge as Poland’s secondary scorer. He had seven goals for Napoli this season and scored in a pair of friendlies leading up to the World Cup. Reportedly on the verge of signing a new deal with his Serie A side that includes a £65 million release, the 24-year-old could be primed for a breakout tournament.
Senegal – Sadio Mane (F)
The forgotten goal-scorer in Liverpool’s attack, Mane tends to pop up all over the pitch in attack at the club level. Whether that kind of unpredictability will serve Senegal well remains to be seen, but Mane’s pace on the right flank will likely give Poland fits.
RUMORED TO MOVE
With Zielinski expected to come off the mark with his impending re-signing at Napoli, Krychowiak may stick around in England as newly promoted Fulham is reportedly interested in his services. Juventus and Napoli reportedly made offers for Keita Balde over the past year, so there may be residual interest in the 23-year-old Monaco man.
Per Ladbrokes, Poland has been established as a 5-4 favorite, with Senegal getting 12-5 odds on taking all three points. The odds of a draw are listed at 2-1, creating a tight line across the board. As expected, Lewandowski is the clear-cut favorite to be the first goal-scorer, returning 14-5 odds, while Sakho and Mane both have 11-2 odds.
There has not been much talk about Poland as a potential darkhorse, which is somewhat surprising given its status as group winner following up its quarterfinal appearance in the 2016 European Championships. Lewandowski is one of the world’s best striker, and Szczeny is one of the more underrated keepers in Europe.
The Bialo-Czerwoni should contend for the top spot in Group H with Colombia, though Senegal definitely has the potential to play spoiler in this group as the African side is a cut above Japan.
Senegal’s return to the global stage after 16 years is somewhat overdue, and having Cisse guiding the squad takes some of the pressure off trying to match that 2002 showing by his side in Japan and South Korea.
The Lions of Tarenga have the talent to get through to the knockout round behind Mane and Sakho up front, but their hopes may hinge on Zielinski’s Napoli teammate and central defender Kalidou Koulibaly keeping Lewandowski in check in this match to give themselves a chance against Colombia.
This should be an entertaining match, and a split of the points via a 2-2 draw would not be a surprising scoreline.
Poland moves on to play Colombia in Kazan on SundWay, while Senegal will play Japan earlier that day in Ekaterinburg.