Before kick-off Hervé Renard denied that Saudi Arabia’s government had gifted his players a Rolls Royce apiece in recognition of their achievement in beating Argentina. The Green Falcons’ French manager reminded everyone his team had not yet escaped the group stage and, to the considerable dismay of the massed Saudi support congregated in Doha, Robert Lewandowski revelled in reinforcing the point before promptly bursting into tears.
Poland’s record scorer not only finally registered his first World Cup goal but created Piotr Zielinski’s opener as Renard’s initially dominant team missed a penalty and ultimately ran out of steam.
“I’m proud of my players,” said Renard, whose hopes of guiding Saudi to a first knockout appearance since 1994 hinge on the outcome of their final Group C match against Mexico. “But we weren’t efficient and Poland are strong. They have three fantastic players in Wojciech Szczesny, Piotr Zielinski and Robert Lewandowski. Congratulations to Lewandowski on his first World Cup goal ... but we are still alive.”
“Lewangoalski” was suitably delighted. “I always wanted to score at a World Cup and my dream came true,” he said. “I was so emotional. I can confirm they were tears of joy. As Poland’s captain I’m so happy for our team.”
Barely two minutes into the game he was grimacing after being left limping following a full-blooded, tone-setting Saudi challenge. It was cheered to the rafters by a full house at Education City, where the overwhelmingly Saudi-supporting crowd transformed the stadium into a sea of green. Poland players were booed like pantomime villains every time they touched the ball.
The atmosphere served as a tailwind for Renard’s vibrant side and it took an excellent save by Szczesny to palm a shot over the bar from the impressive Mohammed Kanno. Invariably half a yard off the pace at this juncture, Poland were in danger of being submerged by wave upon wave of attacks and it spoke volumes that three of Czeslaw Michniewicz’s players were booked by the 20th minute.
Lewandowski was so starved of service that he dropped ever deeper in search of the ball, and at one point was spotted in the right-back position. Everything changed when Aston Villa’s Matty Cash, Michniewicz’s actual right-back, overlapped, and although Lewandowski could not control Cash’s eventual cross in the manner he would have hoped, he laid it off adroitly to Zielinski.
As Zielinski’s fabulous first-time volley flew high into the net Poland’s captain smiled for the first time. His frown soon returned, however, when Krystian Bielik caught Saleh al-Shehri’s ankle in the area and a soft penalty was given after a VAR review. Salem al-Dawsari’s poor spot-kick was parried low by Szczesny and the former Arsenal goalkeeper then performed acrobatic wonders to tip Mohammed al-Burayk’s follow-up over the bar.
Szczesny’s double save was up there with the finest goalkeeping interventions seen at the World Cup. By now it was dark in Doha and Renard desperately needed one of his players to switch the lights back on for his side.
However, Poland’s back four – Michniewicz had switched from his more familiar defensive trio specifically for this game – held firm. Indeed they would have increased their advantage but for a header from Arkadiusz Milik and a shot from Lewandowski, who by now was joining the attacking dots for Poland, hitting the bar.
Saudi Arabia had lost their earlier shape, structure and sharpness, and were visibly tiring. Renard’s typically hyperactive touchline exertions left his trademark fitted white shirt soaked in sweat as he watched his substitutes fail to have the desired effect.
When Abdulellah al-Malki’s heavy, apparently fatigued, touch permitted the often deceptively anonymous yet ever-alert Lewandowski to snatch the ball off his toe the game was up for the Green Falcons. After directing a low left-foot shot under the goalkeeper for his 77th international goal, the Barcelona striker was overcome with emotion and engulfed by teammates, eventually emerging to blow a kiss to the crowd. The result leaves both sides with all to play for.
“I hope our fans won’t give up on us,” said Renard, fretting that momentum may be ebbing from his team. “My message is please keep supporting us and help Saudi Arabia make history.”