MOSCOW (Reuters) - Senegal’s discipline and faith in themselves as a new generation of African talent were key to their 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday, said coach Aliou Cisse, refusing to accept the result was all down to errors by the Group H seeds.
Neither side’s goalkeeper was troubled for much of the 90 minutes but an own goal and a stray back pass handed all the advantage to Senegal, playing in their first World Cup in 16 years, before the Poles secured a late consolation.
“Senegal won due to discipline,” said Cisse, who captained the side which famously beat defending champions France in their first ever World Cup match in 2002. “You saw a Senegal team very solid, very compact. We were able to put them under pressure.
“Every time they made a mistake we were able to find the action we needed and get back at them. We managed really well to get them out of their comfort zone in the first half.”
Cisse, a defensive midfielder who spent his playing days in England and France, has faced criticism since taking over three years ago for being too cautious in his approach and not making enough of attacking talent around Liverpool winger Sadio Mane.
But fresh from an unexpected victory that sets the West Africans up well to get out of a group which also includes Japan and Colombia, Cisse was making no excuses for shutting down a Poland attack centred around Robert Lewandowski.
“Senegal prevented Poland from playing,” he said. “You should give credit for that... We knew that Robert Lewandowski was a key element... and we played it very tight.”
Fragility in the face of tightly drilled European sides has in the past been seen as a factor in holding back African teams, only two of which have matched Senegal’s feat of reaching the quarter-finals in 2002. None has done better than that.
But a squad built around Mane and of more modest ability mostly, playing their football at French and English clubs less distinguished than Liverpool, showed on Tuesday that they can nullify better funded opponents, even if Poland had an off day.
Captain Cheikhou Kouyate, who started on the bench, said ahead of the match that they had been worked “like dogs” over the past weeks by Cisse, who said he was proud of his players.
“They came here with a lot of determination,” said Cisse. “They’ve worked hard. I think this is really a generation that deserves a lot of credit and respect.”
Goalscorer Mbaye Niang said: “We deserved our luck because we worked really hard.”
He was trotting back on to the field after treatment in the 60th minute when Poland’s Gregorz Krychowiak lofted a casual back pass over the centre circle towards defender Jan Bednarek, who failed to spot Niang’s sprint until too late.
Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny raced out of his area but Niang was too quick. “As I came back on, I saw a ball coming back to the Polish defence,” said Niang. “I sensed something might be on and managed to nip in and score.”
Cisse said he was proud that all of Africa was rooting for his side though he stressed that the other four African teams, who all lost their opening matches, were not out of it yet.
Victory over Poland could not match the feeling of defeating former colonial power France in Seoul in 2002, but it was “just as important”, he added.
“We’re not getting carried away,” said Cisse. “We’re staying humble and we need to prepare for the match against Japan (on Sunday).”
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Ken Ferris