(Photo by JANEK SKARZYŃSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Poland ended the 2022/23 season with a narrow defeat against Belgium on Tuesday evening. Michy Batshuayi’s first-half header condemned Czesław Michniewicz’s team to a second loss of the UEFA Nations League campaign.
While the Belgian visitors dominated much of the first period, they entered the break with only the one goal to show for it. The much-coveted Youri Tielemans was the architect; not closed down, he placed a perfect cross onto the head of the diving Batshuayi, to give the Red Devils a deserved lead.
Belgium looked to have doubled their lead fifteen minutes later; however Eden Hazard strayed offside before coolly chipping over Wojciech Szczęsny. At the other end, a rare Polish chance fell to Sebastian Szymański; but the midfielder blazed well over Simon Mignolet’s crossbar.
Michniewicz’s much-changed eleven struggled throughout the first period. Karol Linetty was anonymous for large spells, while debutant Mateusz Wieteska’s inexperience at this level was showing. Given their lack of playing time during this international grouping, they both did little to increase their chances of making the 23-man squad for the World Cup in November.
But there were positives for Poland, particularly in a much-improved second-half performance.
Having impressed on his debut at centre-back against Netherlands, Jakub Kiwior switched to full-back and showed his versatility. He even came close to scoring a first international goal, but blazed his shot over the bar after Robert Lewandowski’s cute knock-back. On only his third international start, Szymon Żurkowski also staked a strong claim for a plane ticket to Doha with a strong, intelligent performance in the middle of the park.
Nicola Zalewski and Matty Cash were, again, positives, and heavily involved in complimenting the Polish attack. Zalewski, however, missed Poland’s best chance of the first period; the Roma youngster flashing his volley wide, when hitting the target would have resulted in a certain goal.
At the other end of the pitch, Wojciech Szczęsny showed his lack of fear, and was arguably Poland’s best player on the night. After the pressure of strong performances from Bartłomiej Drągowski and Łukasz Skorupski against Belgium and Netherlands respectively, on several ocassions he was willing to put his head into places where others around him would not stick their legs.
Meanwhile, captain Lewandowski was influential, if not quite his usual force in front of goal. Often he found himself coming deep, relying on the likes of Szymański and Zieliński to take up the positions in which he would usually thrive.
Ultimately, the Poles’ biggest attacking threat in the second half came from the substitute’s bench, in the form of Charlotte FC’s Karol Świderski. He twice went close to snatching a point in the final minutes – firstly with a sweetly-struck, acrobatic volley, which seemed to graze the crossbar; and then a final-minute header from Lewandowski’s inch-perfect ball, which hit the inside of Mignolet’s left-hand post, before flashing across the goalline.
While, ultimately, the records will show a defeat, it wasn’t a performance that the slightly-weakened Polish team should be entirely ashamed of – especially when compared to last week’s mauling in Brussels. The Belgians could, perhaps, have been leading by a bigger margin at the break, but Poland could equally have scored three-or-four of their own.
Ultimately, as have many national team coaches, Michniewicz has chosen to prioritise preparations for the World Cup over this particular Nations League campaign. The results may be far below what many had hoped for, but he has as least answered a number of questions that will have been niggling him.
September’s matches in Warsaw and Cardiff will be important for the Poles to maintain their League A status, but hopefully, these four matches will have provided the Selekcjoner with enough information about his team to do so.
Poland – Belgium 0:1 (0:1)
Michy Batshuayi 16′.
Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Matty Cash, Mateusz Wieteska (Kamil Grosicki 84′), Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior – Sebastian Szymański (Mateusz Klich 70′), Szymon Żurkowski, Karol Linetty (Jacek Góralski 84′), Nicola Zalewski (Przemysław Frankowski 58′) – Piotr Zieliński (Karol Świderski 58′) – Robert Lewandowski.
Belgium: Simon Mignolet – Toby Alderweireld, Leander Dendoncker, Jan Vertonghen – Timothy Castagne, Youri Tielemans, Axel Witsel (Hans Vanaken 46′), Thorgan Hazard (Thomas Foket 62′) – Dries Mertens (Charles De Ketelaere 80′), Michy Batshuayi (Lois Openda 67′), Eden Hazard (Leandro Trossard 67′).
Yellow Cards: Żurkowski