(photo: Getty Images/Adam Nurkiewicz)
As it has done so many times throughout Poland’s history, the Stadion Śląski provided the backdrop for yet another famous night of international football on Tuesday. Czesław Michniewicz’s Biało-czerwoni earned their place at the 2022 World Cup with a hard-earned 2-0 victory over Sweden; for the first time in Polish history, the national team has now qualified for four consecutive major international tournaments.
While the Poles had qualified for the final thanks to a bye past the excluded Russians, the Swedish team arrived in Silesia after a gruelling 120-minute victory over Czech Republic on Thursday. Any tiredness was not evident, though, as the visitors dominated proceedings for much of the first period.
They did so, however, without really testing Wojciech Szczęsny in the Polish goal; only one, low save, from Emil Forsberg, really causing the White Eagles concern. Strong defending from a back three of Kamil Glik, Jan Bednarek and Krystian Bielik kept the Swedish attack from testing the keeper further.
While Sweden were calm and patient on the ball, Poland were haphazard and erratic; lumping the ball forward to a lonely Robert Lewandowski as their only outlet. The 54,000 fans’ loudest cheer of the first half came close to its end, when a small section of the Stadion Śląski lighting cut out.
The cheers in the second half came quickly, and were much, much louder. The half-time introduction of Grzegorz Krychowiak – in place of Jacek Góralski, who could, quite easily, have been sent off to a dangerous tackle just before the break – proved to be the spark. Just five minutes in, the AEK Athens midfielder beat Jesper Karlstroem to the ball inside the box, and was bundled over by the Lech Poznań man.
Rather than point to the penalty spot, the Italian referee could have just as easily pointed to the centre circle; when Lewandowski is given such a chance, it would be foolish to bet against him. He sent Robin Olsen the wrong way for his 75th international goal – moving 27 clear of second-placed Włodek Lubański, in the very stadium where the Górnik Zabrze legend scored so many of his famous goals.
While the goal sparked the Śląski crowd into life, it also provided the Swedish team with a renewed impetus; and Szczęsny was forced into an impressive save to deny Forsberg at the back post. The importance of the next goal couldn’t be overstated, and it looked as though it would go to someone in a yellow shirt.
But, perhaps against the run of play, it went in the opposite direction – courtesy of a gift from the visiting defence. Marcus Danielson was caught in possession by a marauding Piotr Zieliński, who bore down quickly on Olsen’s goal before firing his right footed effort calmly past the Aston Villa stopper.
The two-goal cushion, with less than 20 minutes left on the clock, proved to be enough to settle the nerves of even the most pessimistic Polish supporter. Even the surprisingly late introduction of Zlatan Ibrahimović, ten minutes from time, did little to calm the early celebrations. By the time Zieliński was substituted, with a minute of normal time remaining, the Polish bench were already celebrating their now-inevitable qualification.
For Michniewicz, his first brief has been fulfilled. Brought in as a late replacement for Paulo Sousa, his initial task was simply to finish the job that the Portuguese started. It was done in relative style, too; his side displayed a battling, and at times heroic performance, that had so often been lacking under his predecessor. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was effective.
Attention will soon turn to how the coach can extract the most from a team which is now, surely, at its last chance of achieving on the world stage. Krychowiak and Szczęsny are both 32; Glik is 34; Lewandowski will also be by the time the tournament gets underway in December. By far the most talented group of players in Polish history, yet a group which struggled in both 2018 and 2021.
But tonight, as the fans dispersed into the Silesian night, they could at least be allowed to dream of their current heroes repeating the feat of Górski’s Eagles in 1974, and Piechniczek’s side eight years later.
Poland – Sweden 2:0 (0:0)
Lewandowski (pen) 50′, Zieliński 72′
Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Krystian Bielik, Kamil Glik, Jan Bednarek – Matty Cash, Jacek Góralski (Grzegorz Krychowiak 46′), Jakub Moder, Bartosz Bereszyński – Piotr Zieliński (Adam Buska 89′), Robert Lewandowski, Sebastian Szymański.
Sweden: Robin Olsen – Emil Krafth, Victor Lindelof, Marcus Danielson (Zlatan Ibrahimović 80′), Ludwig Augustinsson – Dejan Kulusevski, Kristoffer Olsson (Jesper Karlsson 80′), Jesper Karlstroem (Mattias Svanberg 67′), Emil Forsberg – Robin Quaison (Anthony Elanga 67′), Alexander Isak.
Yellow Cards: Góralski, Moder, Lewandowski, Bielik – Isak, Kulusevski