Cape Town — You had to feel for Senegal. The Teranga Lions stepped into their match after all their fellow African teams had either drawn or lost their respective games. Hardly encouraging, especially with Poland ranked 8th on Fifa's global rankings compared to Senegal's 27th.
While Polish fans certainly dominated the ambiance heard in the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Senegal supporters made their presence known with colourful costumes, most notably seven fans decked out in body paint and "Senegal" spelled out between them with a single letter of the name painted on each of their chests.
A vuvuzela could also be heard, reminding the world that the raucous horn made infamous during South Africa's World Cup tournament in 2010 will not go gently into that good night just yet.
The match started off slowly with neither side showing any kind of dominance over the other. After ten minutes, Senegal appeared to be taking control with multiple crosses and attacks down the left. By the 12th minute, Gregorz Krychowiak of Poland booked the first foul of the game after sliding into Niang of Senegal. The resultant free kick from Sadio Mane went wide of goal.
By the 18th minute, M'Baye Niang managed to ease past the Polish defence and sent a carefully measured pass to Youssouf Sabaly who squandered a shot at the posts by sending a confusing pass to Mane, resulting in the ball heading wide of the posts.
25 minutes in, both sides appeared to have eased into a steady rhythm, bringing the pace back to one similar to that at the start of the match.
With half-time approaching I settled in for what would probably be a goalless first half until, at the 37th minute, Everton's Idrissa Gueye's shot was deflected into the posts by Poland's Thiago Cionek, marking the first major error of the eastern European side in the match.
The edge of half-time and Senegal appeared to take charge of the match. By the 44th minute, Krychowiak was penalised for a foul on Idrissa Gueye in the Polish half of the pitch. The Paris Saint-Germain player was already on a yellow card for his failed interception against Niang and was lucky the referee thought a free kick was the appropriate sentence.
Half-time and only two minutes were added on. Senegal spent the time maintaining possession while making the odd attack until referee Nawaf Shukralla of Bahrain blew his whistle to end the first part of the game. My coworker, Melissa Britz, was unimpressed with the nature of Senegal's goal, blaming Poland instead. "Instead of giving us the joy of scoring our own goal, they robbed us!" she said.
Despite only a single goal separating the two teams, Senegal returned to the field with vigour. At the 48th minute, Lewandowski was taken down by Sane on the edge of Senegal's area after a quick breakaway, earning the Poles a free kick. Lewandowski took a well aimed kick over the wall but was blocked by Khadim N'Diaye who stopped the ball with an amazing diving save.
56 minutes into the game - Poland decided to up their momentum but failed to build any kind of opportunity to capitalise on. Their change in pace appeared to be short lived as their second critical mistake, in the 60th minute, saw Krychowiak try to send the ball to his own goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, who ran out of his box to try and intercept the ball from Senegal's Niang.
Niang beat Szczesny to the ball and shunted it into an empty net for an easy goal. Before scoring, Niang had just been waved back on to the pitch and capitalised on Poland's mistake in seconds, something that will no doubt result in a lot of soul searching for the eastern European squad.
The change in attitude from Senegal after the second goal was palpable with the players taking more decisive moves at interception. The faces of the Polish fans showed nothing but heartbreak as they no doubt wondered whether there was any hope for their country to make a return from what looked like an inevitable defeat.
The African team saw a substitution at the 63rd minute with Mama Biram Diouf off coming off and Birmingham City's Cheick Ndoye going on to the pitch. The 66th mintue and a corner for Poland saw the ball sail over everyone. Three minutes later, Piszczek sought a chance by sending a low cross to the near post towards Milik whose shot towards the upright of the post went wide - another wasted opportunity.
Play seemed to have lost pace with only a pair of substitutions at the 79th minute mixing up the action - Senegal's Moussa Konate replacing Niang and Poland's Dawid Kownacki replacing Milik. With the end of the game looming, Poland was in desperate need of something to up their confidence and at the 85th minute, that's what they got. Krychowiak redeemed himself somewhat for his earlier blunder by scoring a header from a free kick from Grosicki.
Only one minute of extra time was added, and it wasn't enough for Poland to make a difference. Senegal's win puts them on even footing with Japan in Group H with both teams at 3 points.
The Teranga Lions' performance has certainly rejuvenated Africa's chances of advancing in the tournament now. Here's hoping they can make the Coffee Growers of Colombia as bitter as their namesake's crop when they face them on June 28.