MOSCOW- Senegal forward Sadio Mane and Poland captain Robert Lewandowski starred for their clubs. Now they'll have a chance to come through for their countries when they meet in the World Cup on Tuesday night.
Some players win titles for both, such as Cristiano Ronaldo. Others struggle to lead their national teams to the top, such as Lionel Messi.
“Sadio has something absolutely unique, because he's unpredictable,” Senegal coach Aliou Cisse said Monday through an interpreter. “Nobody is really able to mark him or to stop him. He's really great. At any point he can make the difference with a dribble, with a pass, whatever.”
Now 26, Mane made his professional debut with Metz in 2012, moved to Red Bull Salzburg later that year and to Southampton in 2014. He had the fastest hat trick in Premier League history when he got three goals in a 176-second span against Aston Villa in May 2015, and he transferred to Liverpool in June 2016. Mane became one of the league's top players, scoring 13 Premier League goals in his first season, then getting 10 in the league and 10 more in the Champions League in 2017-18.
He has 14 goals in 49 games for Senegal, back in the World Cup for the time since its debut in 2002.
Lewandowski, who turns 30 in August, started his professional career with Znicz Pruszkow in 2006, moved to Lech Poznan two years later and to Borussia Dortmund in 2010.
After scoring 103 goals in 187 matches for Dortmund, the striker signed with Bayern Munich and has won four straight Bundesliga titles while scoring 106 goals in 126 games - 151 in 195 in all competitions. He can score in a flurry - he had five in a nine-minute span against Wolfsburg in February.
For Poland, Lewandowski has 55 goals in 95 international appearances, including a European-leading 16 in 2018 World Cup qualifying, one more than Ronaldo scored for Portugal.
“I believe that scale if the size of talent of Lewandowski is immense, supported by a lot of work,” Poland coach Adam Nawalka said through an interpreter. “I believe that Robert Lewandowski could set an example to other players how to run a career.”
A winner of the first matchup between the nations would have a good chance to advance from a group that includes Colombia and Japan.
Under Nawalka, who played for his nation at the 1982 World Cup, Poland has risen from 76th in the FIFA rankings in 2013 to eighth - one shy of the nation's high set last year.
Poland finished third in the 1974 World Cup with Grzegorz Lato and in 1982 with Zbigniew Boniek. It was knocked out in the round of 16 in 1986, then didn't qualify until 2002, when it lost its first two games and already was eliminated before beating the U.S. in its group stage finale. The Poles lost their first two games again in 2006 before a meaningless match against Costa Rica and hadn't been back since.
Senegal, a former French colony that gained independence in 1960, debuted in the World Cup with a shocking victory: 1-0 over defending champion France in the 2002 opener. The West African nation advanced to the quarterfinals before a 1-0 extra time loss to Turkey.
After upsetting France in Seoul, South Korea, on a goal by Papa Bouba Diop, thousands of people danced in the streets of Dakar after the 1:30 a.m. final whistle and President Abdoulaye Wade declared a national holiday. Diop ran to the corner flag after scoring, took off his jersey and put it on the field and formed a circle with teammates to dance around the garb.
Before the start of training at Spartak Stadium on Monday, Senegal's players formed a circle, danced and sang.
“The dreams that we had when we are kids that is becoming true,” current captain Cheikhou Kouyate said. “So we'll have to enjoy and give this joy as well to the Senegalese people.”
Cisse captained Senegal's 2002 team. Nawalka played for Poland from 1977-1980.
Poland has won only one of its seven previous World Cup openers, 3-2 over Argentina in 1974, and hasn't advanced past the first round since 1986.
“We're ready as we are seated here,” said midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski, who could make his 100th international appearance.