Poland survived a storm of Saudi Arabian pressure to earn a 2-0 group stage victory on Saturday afternoon.
The clash between Saudi Arabia’s front-foot approach – which carried them to a historic victory against Argentina earlier in the week – and Poland’s agriculture style concocted a battling contest.
Up against the hassling green shirts, Czeslaw Michniewicz’s side was all too keen to fall back upon a direct, airborne journey up the pitch.
Matty Cash combined with Przemyslaw Frankowski down the right to pick out Robert Lewandowski in the box. Poking the ball away from goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais, Lewandowski rolled a pass back for Piotr Zielinski to smash Poland into a lead against the run of play.
Krystian Bielik’s clumsy attempt to dispossess Saleh Al-Shehri was one of several mistimed tackles from the Polish contingent – however, it was the first one inside the penalty box. Salem Al-Dawsari, Saudi’s hero against Argentina, had his weak effort from 12 yards rebuffed by Wojciech Szczesny on the cusp of half-time.
Springing back to his feet, the Juventus number one tipped over Mohammed Al Burayk’s attempt on the rebound.
With one of Herve Renard’s half-time talks ringing in their ears, Saudi continued to swamp and swarm their European opponents.
Al-Dawsari, unfazed by his erroneous penalty, was a constant spoke in Poland’s wheel. Saudi’s skipper began a move that Jakub Kiwior failed to halt, clearing the ball into his own teammate before it fell to Al-Dawsari a handful of yards from goal. Yet, Szczesny was there to smother again.
Saudi Arabia scored twice against Argentina with just three shots but that clinical edge deserted them in the desert on Saturday. Renard’s side repeatedly poured forward but time and again didn’t test Poland’s resilient number one, with Mohamed Kanno and Firas Al-Buraikan guilty of blazing over.
As Saudi’s search for an equaliser became increasingly desperate, Poland surged into the widening gaps on the counter. Arkadiusz Milik cannoned a header off the crossbar before Lewandowski’s scuffed effort was tipped onto the post moments later.
A lapse in concentration in the final ten minutes from Saudi’s Abdulelah Al Malki presented Lewandowski with a golden chance to break his duck at the World Cup, Having stolen possession himself, Lewandowski tucked his first tournament goal under Al Owais.
Poland’s skipper was denied a second in the closing stages but the result had been won by his goal. Victory moved Poland above Saudi Arabia, to the top of Group C on four points.
GK: Wojciech Szczesny – 8/10 – For large swathes of the match, Poland were clinging onto the lead only by one of Szczesny’s gloved fingers.
RB: Matty Cash – 5/10 – With Piotr Zielinski wandering infield when Poland had the ball, Cash was tasked with providing the width down the right flank. Fortunate to not receive a second yellow card in the first half.
CB: Kamil Glik – 7/10 – Revelled in the grubby defensive work he was forced to regularly carry out.
CB: Jakub Kiwior – 6/10 – Guilty of rushing his decisions when put under intense pressure but dealt with most of the danger well enough.
LB: Bartosz Bereszynski – 5/10 – Rarely joined Poland’s attack, handing back to offer a mixed level of resistance.
RM: Piotr Zielinski – 6/10 – Took his goal superbly but was subdued otherwise, making way after barely an hour.
CM: Grzegorz Krychowiak – 4/10 – Desperately struggled to limit the flood of green shirts steaming through Poland’s midfield.
CM: Krystian Bielik – 4/10 – Gave Al-Shehri the chance to tumble, an invitation he gleefully accepted.
LM: Przemyslaw Frankowski – 5/10 – Skirted around the fringes of the match.
AM: Arkadiusz Milik – 5/10 – Flitted in and out of the contest, denied a crisp header by the woodwork.
ST: Robert Lewandowski – 7/10 – Cleverly teed up Zielinski before he was handed a gift of a goal.
SUB: Jakub Kamiski (63′ for Zielinski) – 5/10
SUB: Krzysztof Piatek (71′ for Milik) – 5/10
Manager: Czeslaw Michniewicz – 4/10 – Owed a great dollop of thanks to his keeper – rather than any tactical mastery.
GK: Mohammed Al Owais – 5/10 – Lost his bearings a bit but could scarcely be blamed for allowing Zielinski’s thwack to flash past him.
RB: Saud Abdulhamid – 7/10 – Intriguingly swapped flanks with Al Burayk at half-time, but saw plenty of the ball on either side of the interval.
CB: Abdulelah Al Amri – 6/10 – More expansive with the ball at his feet compared to his more pedestrian centre-back partner.
CB: Ali Al-Boleahi – 6/10 – Got dragged out of position trying – and failing to halt Lewandowski for Poland’s first goal.
LB: Mohammed Al Burayk – 5/10 – In the wars in open play, Al Burayk squandered a glorious chance to spare Al-Dawsari’s blushes at the penalty.
CM: Mohamed Kanno – 7/10 – Storming around the pitch with undiluted zeal.
CM: Abdulelah Al Malki – 4/10 – The anguish swept across his face as soon as he spotted Lewandowski steaming out of his blind spot to snatch Poland’s second.
CM: Sami Al-Najei – 5/10 – Sacrificed at half-time after a performance which didn’t seem to be worthy of an early bath.
RW: Firas Al-Buraikan – 6/10 – A regular outlet for Saudi, receiving the ball between the lines as the Green Falcons progressed up the pitch with far more ease than Poland.
ST: Saleh Al-Shehri – 7/10 – A pest at the sharp end of the pitch, buzzing around and causing a nuisance.
LW: Salem Al-Dawsari – 5/10 – A weak penalty was the one – albeit significant – stain on an impressive performance which saw him at the heart of every Saudi surge forward.
SUB: Nawaf Al-Abid (46′ for Al-Najei) – 7/10 – Injected some forward thrust to Saudi Arabia’s midfield.
SUB: Sultan Al Ghanam (65′ for Al Burayk) – 5/10
SUB: Abdulrahman Al-Obood (85′ for Al Malki) – N/A
SUB: Nasser Al Dawsari (86′ for Al-Shehri) – N/A
SUB: Hattan Sultan Babhir (90+5′ for Al-Abid) – N/A
Manager: Herve Renard – 6/10 – Sticking to their guns, Renard’s side took the same brave approach which downed Argentina and had far more chances than they could create that day.