Poland play anti-football, but bluff their way to progression after Argentina defeat

(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

We want to spend Barbórka [Miners’ Day] and Mikołajki [St Nicholas’ Day] in Qatar,” proclaimed Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz before the World Cup; “which would mean that we will leave the group.” The first of those has been achieved: while Poles celebrate the patron saint of miners, on Sunday, Michniewicz’s men will make a first World Cup knockout appearance in 36 years, against current holders France. Given their performance against Argentina, and their manner of progression, the Biało-Czerwoni faithful may need to pray for Saint Barbara to add to her list of thirteen miracles if they wish to make the second.

For twenty second-half minutes in Doha, it ironically looked as though Poland’s progression was going to be decided by arguably the most negative aspect of their performance: their lack of aggression. As Mexico took a two-goal lead against Saudi Arabia, and Julian Alvarez doubled the Argentinians’ advantage, Poland’s narrowly better disciplinary record (five yellow cards to Mexico’s seven) was all that was in their favour.

Though Saudi Arabia’s eventual injury-time consolation changed nothing (Another Mexico goal would have still put them through at Poland’s expense), it did at least remove the asterisk from Poland’s World Cup record. They progressed to the knockout round for what they did do on the pitch, rather than what they didn’t.

But in stark honesty, the performance offered little to show that Poland can advance any further in this tournament – even with the intervention of a divine being.

Despite sticking with a relatively attacking line-up, Michniewicz’s side offered little in the Argentinian half. As he had been against Mexico, Robert Lewandowski cut a lonely figure; while Karol Świderski – called into the eleven in place of Arek Milik – was barely visible at all.

While Poland’s first-half possession stats were a narrow improvement on their first two games, it was often in areas where they couldn’t cause their South American opponents any damage. Argentina, at times, seemed happy to let Poland have the ball, knowing that they have often lacked any creative flair in the final third.

Argentina, themselves, also struggled to cause the Polish defence too many problems in the opening 45 minutes; but twice Wojciech Szczęsny was on hand to be his country’s saviour. The first time, he had to be at full stretch tip tip Angel Di Maria’s wickedly-curling corner over his crossbar – perhaps atoning for having positioned himself poorly in the first place. Yet for the second, there were no questions at all over his abilities.

For the second time in the tournament, VAR was called upon to gift a penalty to Poland’s opponents. While the foul against Saudi Arabia was considered soft, Szczęsny’s alleged foul on Lionel Messi was beyond ridiculous. At full stretch, the fingers of his open hand brushed against the Paris Saint-Germain attacker’s face, whilst he was already off balance in mid-air. Even the Argentina players must have been surprised to see it given.

Perhaps they were even more surprised , moments later, to see Messi’s powerful effort kept out by the strong forearm of Szczęsny, diving far to his left. Not only justice, but a save worthy of writing himself into the record books as one of only three keepers to have saved two penalties at a World Cup – alongside Brad Friedel in 2002, and compatriot Jan Tomaszewski back in 1974.

While, with the introduction of Michał Skóraś and Jakub Kamiński, Michniewicz tried to inject a little attacking momentum during the half-time break, within sixty seconds of the restart they were chasing the game. An attack on the Polish left was directed into the Polish box, and the snatched shot of Brighton & Hove Albion’s Alexis MacAllister snuck its way into the net via Szczęsny’s right-hand post.

The goal was a sucker-punch; and from thereon in, Poland never looked like scoring a goal of their own. Even when news filtered through from across town that Mexico had taken the lead, and then doubled it, Michniewicz’s charges seemed happy to sit back and defend their narrow deficit.

But when Julian Alvarez finished off a sublime Argentina move – 27 passes, from start to finish – by placing an inch-perfect shot into the corner of the Polish net, the game changed completely. Poland doubled down on their anti-football style to try to see the game out.

With Poland and Mexico now tied on points, goal difference, and even goals scored, their respective disciplinary records came into effect; leaving fans, journalists, and even officials, scouring the records to see who would prevail in such an instance. It also left Poland’s tournament seemingly hinging on the ridiculously fine line between being too aggressive in defense, or not being aggressive enough.

And so with the final whistles in both the Stadium 974 and the Lusail Stadium, the White Eagles finally achieved their minimum target for the tournament. Perhaps having done so, we’ll now have a chance to see them play against the reigning World champions with the freedom of a team that no longer has anything to lose.

However, unless something drastic changes in their approach to their last-sixteen tie, it seems much more likely that the Reprezentacja will be back home to open gifts with their families for Saint Nicholas’ Day than preparing to write their names in the annals of Polish football. As much as it might hurt to say, perhaps the tournament may be better for it.


Poland – Argentina 2:0 (0:0)

Alexis MacAllister 46′, Julian Alvarez 67′

Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Matty Cash, Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior, Bartosz Bereszyński (Artur Jędrzejczyk 72′) – Piotr Zieliński, Krystian Bielik (Damian Szymański 62′), Grzegorz Krychowiak (Krzysztof Piątek 83′), Przemysław Frankowski (Michał Skóraś 46′) – Karol Świderski (Jakub Kamiński 46′), Robert Lewandowski (c).

Coach: Czesław Michniewicz

Argentina: Emiliano Martinez – Nahuel Molina, Nicolas Otamendi, Cristian Romero, Marcos Acuna (Nicolas Tagliafico 59′) – Alexic MacAllister (Thiago Almada 84′), Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez (German Pezzella 79′) – Angel Di Maria (Leandro Paredes 59′), Lionel Messi (c) – Julian Alvarez (Lauturo Martinez 79′).

Coach: Lionel Scaloni

Yellow Cards: Krychowiak – Acuna

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