(Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP via Getty Images)
Robert Lewandowski added a first World Cup goal to his earlier assist, to fire Poland to the top of Group C. He doubled Piotr Zieliński’s opener, after Wojciech Szczęsny’s first-half penalty save, to give Poland an important 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Saturday evening.
Poland’s Eagles went into the ‘Mecz o Wszystko’ after a disappointing showing against Mexico on Tuesday, knowing that anything other than a victory would leave their hopes of progression from the group hanging by the thinnest of threads. After their opponents’ victory over Argentina on matchday one, it was never going to be an easy task.
Coach Czesław Michniewicz responded to criticism about Poland’s attacking prowess against Mexico by making three changes: ineffective against the Central Americans, Nicola Zalewski and Jakub Kamiński were sacrificed for Przemysław Frankowski and Krystian Bielik; while Arkadiusz Milik was thrown in as a second striker in place of Sebastian Szymański.
Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard made three changes of his own, but had no intention of changing the high-intensity style of play that earned them three points against favourites Argentina. Buoyed on by a heavily partisan crowd, they showed that they were not to be taken lightly, and that their earlier result was no fluke.
Poland, meanwhile, were hassled into making mistakes across the field; although applied much more aggression than they had at Stadium 974. Often that was to their detriment, though; Matty Cash, Jakub Kiwior and Milik were all jotted into the referee’s notebook within the first 20 minutes, with Cash perhaps lucky not to have received further punishment moments later for a flailing arm.
But despite all of the Saudis’ pressure, the Polish defence remained resolute; Kiwior and Kamil Glik showed a willingness to throw their body on the line if needed, whilst the defensive midfield pairing of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Krystian Bielik often provided a protective shield when needed.
While Saudi Arabia dominated possession, the better chances had arguably fallen to Poland; and when Zieliński fired them into the lead, it was against the run of play. From the right back position, Matty Cash was twice involved in the build-up. The Aston Villa man’s cross found Lewandowski at the near post; and though he originally looked to have miscued his shot, Lewy was able to gather control and switch back to Zielu, who smashed into the roof of Al-Owais’ net from close range.
While the stats will show that it was Zieliński’s goal that gave Poland the important half-time lead, it is only because saves at the other end aren’t recorded with such posterity; and when Bielik’s clumsy – if soft – challenge on Saleh Al-Shehri inside the box was deemed enough for the referee to consult the VAR, Wojciech Szczęsny was given a chance to provide the heroics.
He did. Twice. First the Juventus custodian dived low to his right to deny Salem Al-Dawsari, and then pulled off an even-better reaction stop to divert Mohammed Al-Breik’s follow-up over the crossbar.
Renard was compelled to make a change at the break, bringing Nawef Al-Abed on for Sami Al-Najei in the hope of maintaining their aggressive press; and as two efforts were blazed over the bar in quick succession, it looked to have the desired effect.
Yet, Michniewicz’s own change, switching out goalscorer Zieliński for Kamiński, immediately began to swing momentum into their favour. On two occasions, Poland came within the width of the woodwork of doubling their lead: the diving head of Milik smashed off of the bar, whilst Lewandowski’s cute flick clipped the upright.
With the introduction of Krzysztof Piątek, soon after, Poland continued their pressure; and with eight minutes of normal time remaining, Lewandowski was rewarded with his first World Cup goal. As they finally began to press the tiring Saudi defence, the Barcelona man forced a mistake. Abdelullah Al-Malki was caught in possession on the edge of the box, and Lewy placed calmly underneath the advancing goalkeeper to double the Polish lead.
While the performance was still lacking the panache with which it was hoped the Poles would play, there was indeed a marked improvement from their opener. There was an improved hunger and aggression which, although at times looked as though it could boil over, was settled as the game progressed. There was also a much-improved attacking impetus, even if it often lacked a cutting edge.
But, though frustrating to see Poland often on the back foot, there did often seem to be an element of game management. With the Saudis’ high intensity and physicality always likely to fade as the game progressed, Michniewicz’s men bided their time and struck whilst the iron was hot.
So, for the first time in a generation, Poland have overcome the ‘Mecz o Wszystko’ at a World Cup – an achievement which is worth celebrating. The three points put Poland at the top of Group C ahead of Saturday evening’s meeting between group rivals Mexico and Argentina.
However, the reward for victory against Saudi Arabia is merely yet another ‘Match for Everything’, against Argentina on Wednesday. A point against Messi and Co., to see Poland through to the second stage for the first time in 36 years, will only be the true measure of success for this team.
Poland – Saudi Arabia 2:0 (1:0)
Piotr Zieliński 40′, Robert Lewandowski 82′
Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Bartosz Bereszyński, Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior, Matty Cash – Piotr Zieliński (Jakub Kamiński 62′), Krystian Bielik, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Przemyław Frankowski – Arkadiusz Milik (Krzysztof Piątek 71′), Robert Lewandowski (c).
Coach: Czesław Michniewicz
Saudi Arabia: Mohammed Al-Owais – Saud Abdulhamid, Abdulellah Al-Amri, Ali Al-Bulaihi, Mohammed Al-Breik (Sultan Al-Ghannam 64′) – Sami Al-Najei (Nawef Al-Abed 46′), Abdulellah Al-Malki (Abdulrahman Al-Aboud 85′), Mohammed Kanno – Firas Al-Buraikan, Saleh Al-Shehri (Nasser Al-Dawsari 85′), Salem Al-Dawsari (c).
Coach: Herve Renard
Yellow Cards: Kiwior, Cash, Milik – Al-Malki, Al-Amri