(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Ryan Hubbard in Cardiff
A moment of magic from Robert Lewandowski, finished off by Karol Świderski, ensured Poland maintained their UEFA Nations League A status remained in place, with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff.
Both sides went into the crucial match on the back of defeat; Wales with a 2-1 reverse to Belgium, and the Poles after the 2-0 defeat by Netherlands. While it had the potential to be a cagey affair, it was, perhaps, anything but.
After reports of heated discussions between coach Czesław Michniewicz and captain Lewandowski, the former opted to give the latter a much-desired strike partner. Świderski was thrust into attack alongside the Barcelona star, with Piotr Zieliński acting the playmaker behind the pair.
As hinted in his pre-match press conference on Saturday, though, Michniewicz did opt to stick with the back three which caused much conversation both during and after the match against Netherlands on Thursday. He did, however, decide to play the more defensive Bartosz Bereszyński as a right wing-back in place of Przemysław Frankowski, who dropped out of the squad altogether.
An open-but-goalless first-half could have gone either way, with a couple of chances falling to each side. Both goalkeepers were forced into action as the game swung from end-to-end.
Wojciech Szczęsny had to be at his quickest and strongest to prevent Gareth Bale from firing off a shot after a well-prepared throw-in routine. Earlier he had twice prevented Daniel James from opening the scoring with two low saves.
Welsh keeper Wayne Hennessey, perhaps, only had slightly less to do, with a strong save from Lewandowski’s header midway through the half being the only time he was really tested by the Polish attack. Ironically, the visitors’ best chance was almost the Welsh keeper’s own doing, as he mis-controlled a backpass, only to spare his own blushes with a last-gasp clearance off the line, with the home fans’ hearts in their mouths.
The hosts’ best chance of the half came late, and there would have been nothing that Juventus stopper Szczęsny could do about it. After beating Kamil Glik to the ball, Brennan Johnson’s shot cannoned off of his team-mate, before whistling past the outside of the Pole’s left-hand post.
Despite the Polish midfield struggling to get a hold on the game for large periods, and Grzegorz Krychowiak’s silly yellow card tackle after giving the ball away himself, Michniewicz decided not to make any changes at the break.
That descision paid off thirteen minutes into the second period, starting with a ball through the middle. Lewandowski was the recipient; he flicked forward on the turn to the onrushing Karol Świderski, who fired first time with his left foot past the helpless Hennessey.
Wales responded strongly, and at the beginning of a sustained period of pressure could have drew level almost immediately. Brennan Johnson again denied with a low drive, only this time it was the strong right arm of Szczęsny, who tipped it just around his post.
Szczęsny again was called into action in the 78th minute, this time with a strong left arm. A whipped ball across his six-yard box from James was too risky for the defence to deal with, and he needed to be at full stretch to push wide.
The Biało-Czerwoni‘s back-line was also forced to be resolute in the final stages. Desperate defending and a number of diving blocks kept Poland’s lead in tact, while the crossbar denied Gareth Bale a dramatic equaliser in the dying stages.
While more positive than on Thursday against the Dutch, it was still far from a performance which suggests the Poles can cause a surprise on the World stage. The staunch back-line still shows signs that it could be breached against a strong attack, the midfield needs to show that it can dominate play, while there is still a struggle to get the ball to Lewandowski in positions where he can threaten the opposition goal.
With their position amongst Europe’s top teams now secured, attention will immediately turn to Qatar. With only 58 days until Poland open their campaign in Doha, against Mexico, there is still plenty for Michniewicz to ponder over.
Wales – Poland 0:1 (0:0)
Karol Świderski 58′
Wales: Wayne Hennessey – Connor Roberts (Sorba Thomas 85′), Joe Rodon, Ben Cabango, Rhys Norrington-Davies (Kieffer Moore 58′) – Daniel James, Joe Morrell, Dylan Levitt (Rubin Colwill 72′), Neco Williams – Brennan Johnson, Gareth Bale (c).
Coach: Robert Page
Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Jan Bednarek, Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior – Bartosz Bereszyński (Robert Gumny 90′), Grzegorz Krychowiak, Szymon Żurkowski (Sebastian Szymański 83′), Nicola Zalewski – Piotr Zieliński, Robert Lewandowski (c), Karol Świderski (Krzysztof Piątek 65′).
Coach: Czesław Michniewicz
Yellow Cards: Norrington-Davies, Williams, Moore – Krychowiak, Bereszyński
UEFA Nations League A, Group 4 – Final Table