(Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
Opening match, Match for everything, Match of honour – that’s the old expectation of a Poland team’s schedule at the World Cup. The pairing of Mexico and Poland in the first Group C matchday had led most Polish journalists to throw that old trope out of the window. But as Poland’s Mr Reliable, Robert Lewandowski, hit his low penalty in the same direction as the diving Guillermo Ochoa, those same hacks are now having to sneak out to quietly retrieve it from the pavement below.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia’s shock victory over tournament favourites and group opponents Argentina in Tuesday’s early match, had left Czesław Michniewicz’s men feeling much more tentative as they took to the Stadium 974 pitch. It certainly would have added even more pressure onto two sides who already simply had to avoid defeat in their opener.
Perhaps it was of no surprise, then, that both started off cagily in Doha. Neither team offered their opponents anything in the form of a meaningful chance at goal in the opening 45 minutes.
But the truth is that the early result had changed very little for either of them: ultimately, a win in this match would have put them in a strong position for progression from the group. For the Mexicans, they at least began to show some attacking desire as the game approached its halfway point.
Rather than the three at the back which we have become accustomed to, MIchniewicz opted to start his tournament with four defenders – possibly with one eye on the likelihood of the Mexicans starting with three on their front line. While relatively solid at the back, it often inhibited the attacking abilities of full-backs Matty Cash and Bartosz Bereszyński.
Poland also tried to cause their opponents problems with the long ball over the top; but while it gave Mexico something different to deal with, they quickly settled into a rhythm that left the Poles’ attacking threat nullified.
The insistence on playing route one football often left the Polish midfield with little influence on the game other than trying to pick up a second ball after it had been headed clear. When they did get a hold of the ball on the floor – usually through Grzegorz Krychowiak – forward passes were few and far between.
By the half-time break, Poland’s inability to exert any pressure on the flanks had become clear. It was no surprise that Roma youngster Nicola Zalewski, who had been able to show little of his immense talent, was the first man to make way. Birmingham midfielder Krystian Bielik was his replacement, and Piotr Zieliński was given a more advanced role in support of Lewandowski, as Michniewicz attempted to show a little more aggression.
It did seem to work. Briefly. Poland created their first meaningful attacks of the game, and began to show glimpses of the performances for which its players are renowned at club level. And, thirteen minutes into the second period they may have gotten a reward for it.
There looked to be very little in the tussle between Hector Moreno and Robert Lewandowski; so much so that as the Meixcans cleared their lines and won a free-kick at the other end, there was much surprise that the Slovenian referee delayed its taking. When he was told to check his monitor for a possible infringement, it quickly became apparent that they wouldn’t be allowed to take it.
And so, after all the talk of Poland’s star striker having yet to score on the World’s biggest stage, he was handed the perfect opportunity to break his 330-minute duck. Social media men had their posts pre-written and their cursors hovering over the “Tweet” button.
But the agile veteran between the Mexican posts, Guillermo Ochoa, had other ideas. The 37-year-old dived low to his left to parry Lewy’s weak shot away from goal – leaving the Barcelona star still yet to open his World Cup account and, following Kaziu Deyna in 1978 and Maciej Żurawski in 2002, Poland with the dishonour of becoming the first team in history to miss three successive World Cup spot kicks.
With the stop, both the Mexico players and crowd were rejuvenated – from thereon in they resolved to keep the dejected Polish attack well away from their penalty area. The introduction of Przemek Frankowski in place of Sebastian Szymański on the wing did little to increase the Biało-Czerwoni‘s attacking proficiency. Only with the arrival of Arek Milik, with just a couple of minutes remaining, did Poland once again look like they could snatch an undeserved victory.
Alas, the change came too late. Even with seven added minutes, there was too little time to create anything meaningful.
And so, for the eighth time in nine attempts, the Polish Eagle had its wings clipped in the opening match of a World Cup – a winless streak that now stems back 48 years.
However – and yes, there is some room for optimism – Czesław Michniewicz joins both Jacek Gmoch (1978) and Antoni Piechniczek (1982 and 1986) on the list of Poland coaches who have ‘earned’ a goalless draw in their opener. On all three of those occasions, Poland did progress to the second stage of the competition.
If Michniewicz can emulate those predecessors, it will be seen as a success; but first of all – and many apologies for going back to the old cliche – Saturday’s game against Saudi Arabia has really become a “Mecz o Wszystko”.
Mexico – Poland 0:0 (0:0)
Mexico: Guillermo Ochoa (c) – Jorge Sanchez, Cesar Montes, Hector Moreno, Jesus Gallardo – Edson Alvarez, Hector Herrera (Carlos Rodriguez 71′), Luis Chavez – Hirving Lozano, Henry Martin (Raul Jimenez 71′), Alexis Vega (Uriel Antuna 84′).
Coach: Gerardo “Tata” Martino
Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Bartosz Bereszyński, Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior, Matty Cash – Jakub Kamiński, Grzegorz Krychowiak – Sebastian Szymański (Przemysław Frankowski 71′), Piotr Zieliński (Arkadiusz Milik 88′), Nicola Zalewski (Krystian Bielik 46′) – Robert Lewandowski (c).
Coach: Czesław Michniewicz
Yellow cards: Sanchez, Moreno – Frankowski