Poland head home, but with dignity restored and some hope for the future

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

“Decades will pass before another coach repeats my result,” Antoni Piechniczek told reporters moments after his Poland side had been eliminated from the 1986 World Cup, giving birth to a legend which has plagued the Polish national team now for 36 years. With Kylian Mbappe’s stunning second-half brace adding to Olivier Giroud’s earlier opener, condemning the Białe-Orły to a 3-1 defeat, it will now be at least another four years until Poland have a chance to lift Piechniczek’s curse.

What Poland’s team may look like by the time the 2026 World Cup arrives, who knows? That, of course, is if they can even qualify at all. There have been plenty of signs during the two weeks in Qatar to suggest that such a result might be beyond the current crop of players.

Throughout the 2022 edition the team has been devoid of a vision and a gameplan, whilst Michniewicz seems to have lacked any real idea of who his best eleven actually is. There has been too much a reliance on players whose time in the national team should, perhaps, be coming to an end, whilst struggling to find the young, dynamic players to compliment them. Not a team in transition, but rather a team still waiting to enter that transition.

But by 2026 – or even the 2024 European Championship, only 18 months away – there will surely have been changes. Some voluntary, some enforced.

Poland’s ever-present spine is getting no younger: Kamil Glik will be 36 by the time that tournament football next arrives, while Grzegorz Krychowiak and Wojciech Szczęsny will both be 34. Although Szczęsny’s performance in Qatar showed that he is still capable of competing at the highest level, a host of younger competitors will sense that now is their time to snatch the number one jersey; meanwhile, given a steady decline in performances in recent years, questions will undoubtedly be asked about how much longer Krychowiak and Glik will be around the Reprezentacja.

Amlost immediately after the game, with frustration and disappointment still running high, there were such questions directed towards Robert Lewandowski – himself having celebrated his 34th birthday in the summer. “You need to enjoy the game, and it will be an important element even in the near future,” Lewy told journalists when asked about whether it would be his last World Cup appearance with the White Eagle on his chest. “When we try to attack, it’s different. When we play very defensively, there is no joy, so there are many factors.” Only Lewy himself knows whether that was a dig at the negative tactics which had been employed by coach Czesław Michniewicz during the group stage, or whether it was merely highlighting the fact that only with more attacking performances can Poland actually earn a ticket to North America in four years’ time.

We fought, we tried to repel the French attacks” said Lewandowski, moments after his late penalty kick had salvaged some consolation for Poland. “Even after the goal we conceded, we tried to play. It wasn’t enough for today.

And, for the first time in the tournament, Poland did play with the freedom and attacking vigour with which we knew they could. At times you could find yourself wondering whether it was actually the same team that had lumbered so clumsily through the first stage. Perhaps it was as simple as Michniewicz finally finding the right balance between defence and attack in his midfield. Perhaps it was even a team with its expectations met, and playing as though it now had nothing to lose.

It took the change of system, to a 4-1-4-1 formation, for Michniewicz to achieve that much-needed balance. Almost instantly, the vast wasteland between the Polish back line and Lewandowski was filled with a cluttering of white shirts – all of them showing an eagerness to get a hold of the ball and find a way to prgress it forward that had been lacking thus far. By doing so, Poland finally began to look like a side that deserved to be at this stage of the tournament: not only did they hold more possession in the first half than they had in any of their three group games, they also mustered more shots at goal in 45 minutes than they had in their previous 270.

But, we have to be honest and realistic; without the divine intervention of Jesus himself (Jesus Valenzuela, the Venezuelan referee tasked with taking charge of this meeting), this merciless France team were always going to have too much for Michniewicz’s charges. They didn’t even need to step into top gear to do so. The key questions were just “how quickly they could get up to full steam?”, and “could Poland take advantage whilst Les Bleus were still building speed?”.

Unfortunately the Poles couldn’t take advantage; but that they had created the opportunities to do so was at least a sign of encouragement. On something of an off-night when actually provided with service, Lewandowski should have at least hit the target from distance; whilst Zieliński was denied by Lloris and Upamecano in quick succession before Kamiński’s follow-up was cleared off the line by Varane.

With each chance that went begging, the more inevitable it seemed that France would take the lead; and if Poland could just make it to the break without conceding, then perhaps they had a chance of taking this game to the wire.

With only a minute left on the first-half clock, that Polish confidence was bruised; Olivier Giroud evaded a naively-played offside trap before firing past Szczęsny, and sending the Poles back to the locker room undeservedly behind.

The goal had the desired effect for the World Champions; as Poland emerged chasing the game in the second half and brought on additional attacking threats in the form of Arek Milik and Nicola Zalewski, their midfield became stretched, and the rapid French attack were given more more space in which to operate.

From thereon in, it became mostly one-way traffic in the direction of Szczęsny’s net; perhaps the biggest surprise being that it took 30 second-half minutes for the outstanding Kylian Mbappe to register a goal on his account. Until then, the Polish back line had dealt relatively strongly with the PSG star’s lightning pace, with Glik and Matty Cash both forced to be at their best to stop him. But when he did finally receive the ball in a shooting position, his thunderbolt wrong-footed Szczęsny to double the French lead.

The second goal was the one which ultimately ended Poland’s World Cup. Up until this point there had at least been some sense that Poland may be able to force their way through the resolute French back line, but following it, consolation seemed the only thing on Polish minds. But rather than a Polish goal, with the game petering out, deux became trois. Again, the impeccable Mbappe on the scoresheet, from a similar position inside the Polish box – this one, however, placed rather than smashed, into Szczęsny’s top left corner. Lewandowski’s last-minute penalty – a second stuttered attempt, after Lloris had crept off of his line to save the first – barely mattered other than to make the scoreline at least a little more respectable.

Ultimately, the two-goal deficit was the same as when the Poles played against Argentina, but the performances in the two games had been strikingly different. With the shackles off, there was no more sluggishness, no more anti-football; at last, the class of 2022 were able to stand tall, take the game to one of the world’s greatest teams, and offer hope that there may just be some life in this team beyond the old guard. If only it’d happened earlier.

The records will show that, while Poland progressed to the second round for the first time since Piechniczek’s Eagles back in ’86, they were beaten comfortably. Defeat may have been expected, but at the very least it was an honourable one.

France – Poland 3:1 (1:0)

Olivier Giroud 44′, Kylian Mbappe 75′, 90+1′ – Robert Lewandowski (pen) 90+9′

France: Hugo Lloris (c) – Jules Kounde (Axel Disasi 90+2′), Raphael Varane, Dayot Upamecano, Lucas Hernandez – Antoine Griezmann, Aurelien Tchouameni (Youssouf Fofana 66′), Adrien Rabiot – Ousmane Dembele (Kingsley Coman 76′), Olivier Giroud (Marcus Thuram 76′), Kylian Mbappe.

Coach: Didier Deschamps

Poland: Wojciech Szczęsny – Bartosz Bereszyński, Kamil Glik, Jakub Kiwior (Jan Bednarek 87′), Matty Cash – Przemysław Frankowski (Kamil Grosicki 87′), Sebastian Szymański (Arkadiusz Milik 64′), Grzegorz Krychowiak (Krystian Bielik 71′), Piotr Zieliński, Jakub Kamiński (Nicola Zalewski 71′) – Robert Lewandowski (c).

Coach: Czesław Michniewicz

Yellow Cards: Tchouameni – Bereszyński, Cash


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