AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — Robert Lewandowski inspired Poland to a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia at the World Cup to ensure Group C remains wide open heading into the final round of fixtures.
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Saudi Arabia were looking to cement their spot in the knockout phase after stunning Argentina 2-1 in the opening round, but they came up against an inspired Lewandowski who scored his first World Cup goal in the second half. By that stage, Piotr Zielinski had already given Poland the lead with his first-half goal, but they had goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny to thank for preserving their advantage as he pulled off a remarkable piece of goalkeeping on the stroke of half-time as he saved a penalty and then the rebound.
Saudi Arabia continued hammering away at Poland’s goal but could not get past the inspired Szczesny. With Argentina facing Mexico later on Saturday evening, Poland and Saudi Arabia are still in with a shot at making the knockout rounds of the World Cup but this was Lewandowski’s evening.
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1. Lewandowski finally makes his mark at a World Cup
Poland are aiming to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 1986, and are still in with a chance of achieving that thanks largely to the acrobatics of Szczesny, the relentless work rate and sheer class of Lewandowski and a pragmatic game plan which saw them frustrate Saudi Arabia.
Zielinski’s 39th-minute goal came against the run of play and gave Poland a lucky half-time lead. Despite Saudi Arabia dominating much of the play in the second half, Poland hit the woodwork twice — first through a diving header from Arkadiusz Milik and then Lewandowski striking the post from close range. But then came the moment Poland and Lewandowski had been waiting for.
Before this game at Education City Stadium, he’d played in four World Cup matches but had failed to score. He was risking joining other greats like Luis Figo, Pavel Nedved and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in playing in a World Cup for their country, but never scoring. It looked for all the world like his chance was going to slip by him again. But all it needed was a slip — and it was Mohammed Al-Burayk who was the unfortunate party as his poor touch allowed Lewandowski to pounce and slot it past the on-rushing Mohammed Al-Owais in the 82nd minute to make it 2- 0.
The goal makes Lewandowski — at 34 years and 97 days — the oldest player to score in a World Cup for Poland and draws to a close one previously unfinished narrative at this competition. His work rate is just incredible to watch with the Barcelona star constantly dropping back to help build attacks from deep, gesturing to his teammates to keep them focused and attempting to play in the right areas, and then he manages to balance all that with his day job of scoring. After he managed to slide the ball past the keeper, Lewandowski was mobbed by his teammates after he slid head first in celebration across the turf. He’s already Poland’s greatest-ever player, but now he has a World Cup goal to his name. Up next for Poland are Argentina, and they’ll need their star man at his lethal best if they are to get a result there.
2. Szczesny’s acrobatics help Poland through
The penalty on the stroke of half-time should never have been given, despite the VAR intervention and the subsequent check on the monitor. It was soft at best, as Krystian Bielik caught Saleh Al-Shehri. But the weak officiating at least gave us the chance to see one of the box-office moments of this World Cup so far.
Saudi Arabia’s Salem Al-Dawsari hit the penalty low down to Szczesny’s right. The Juventus keeper managed to get down (with his foot just touching his line as the penalty was taken) and palm that away, leaving Al-Burayk with the straightforward task of hammering it home. But Szczesny managed to get himself off the deck and somehow turned the next effort over the bar. It was a magnificent piece of goalkeeping, and one of the most remarkable double saves you’ll see at this World Cup.
He followed it up with a fantastic close-range stop off Al-Dawsari in the second half, as he managed to get his legs in the way of a point-blank effort and repelled anything else that came his way. But this was a world-class display from the veteran.
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3. Saudis brought back to earth
Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina in the opening round of games was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. But lightning doesn’t strike twice, and they were frustrated by a well-organized Poland side and erratic refereeing. They will rightly feel aggrieved at Matty Cash avoiding at least a second yellow for catching Mohammed Al-Burayk in the face with a stray elbow in the first half. The referee’s errors drew frustration from both camps, but that was a poor, game-changing mistake as Cash would play a key role in Poland’s opener.
But errors apart, Saudi Arabia tried and tried to break down the Poland defense but lacked that moment of magic and cutting edge we saw in their win over Argentina. In a packed Education City Stadium where Saudi Arabia must have had at least 85% of the support, they did come incredibly close to breaking their deadlock. Mohamed Kanno had a shot well-saved by Szczesny in the first half, they missed the penalty and the rebound and were again thwarted by Szczesny with a close range effort in the second half. Feras Al-Brikan had a chance to draw the game level on the hour mark but blazed an effort over from close range.
They still have Mexico to come — a win there and they are through to the knockout stages. This defeat wasn’t for lack of effort, it was just one of those matches where nothing quite went in their favor. They managed to stretch Poland well at times but after securing the biggest victory in their lives against Argentina, it is impossible to repeat that same intensity just four days later. They’ve had public holidays awarded in their honour, and talk of the players being awarded Rolls Royces. But this was a proper gritty World Cup pool match and they need to pick themselves up again for Mexico.
Poland: Szczesny 9, Bereszynski 6, Kiwior 6, Glik 6, Cash 7, Zielinski 7, Krychowiak 8, Bielik 6, Frankowski 7, Milik 6, Lewandowski 9.
Subs: Kaminski 6, Piatek 5.
Saudi Arabia: Al-Owais 6, Abdulhamid 7, Al-Burayk 5, Al-Bulayhi 6, Al-Amri 6, Kanno 7, Al-Malki 5, Al-Naji 5, Al-Dawsari 7, Al-Brikan 6, Al-Shehri 7 .
Subs: Al-Abid 5, Al-Ghannam 6, Al-Obud 6, Al-Dawsari 6, Babhir 6.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Robert Lewandowski
The Poland captain put in a performance for the ages and while there were some remarkable showings by his fellow teammates, he lived up to his billing as the best player on the pitch.
WORST: Sami Al-Naji
Had a quiet game in midfield for Saudi Arabia, and was taken off at half-time with his team 1-0 down to a very direct Poland goal.
Highlights and notable moments
Lewandowski became the latest great to add a World Cup goal to their list of accomplishments, but Szczesny’s double save to maintain Poland’s lead is worthy of repeat viewing.
Wojciech Szczęsny comes up HUGE for Poland 💪😤 pic.twitter.com/tjPxgcN6S9
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 26, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard: “I’m proud of my players, I am sure we could have changed a lot of things. We were not efficient in the game against a strong team, playing some of the wrong balls. This was key in the game — to be realistic, we were not realistic with so many opportunities. But we are still alive, so we’ll play until the last second of our World Cup. We didn’t lose today because we’re unlucky, we lost because we weren’t efficient. I am proud of them.”
Renard on Szczesny: “In your team [Poland] you have three fantastic players: Szczesny, Zielinski and Lewandowski. He did his job, a fantastic job. He’s a great goalkeeper, we didn’t get the success to kill him. Congratulations to him, he won this game. Last time, our goalkeeper did the same against Argentina. This is football.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
This was the first ever meeting between Poland and Saudi Arabia at the World Cup.
Zielinski’s opening goal was Poland’s first at a World Cup scored from open play since 2002.
Szczesny’s penalty save was the first by a Poland goalkeeper at the World Cup since Jan Tomaszewski saved two in 1974 (excludes shootouts). Poland have saved three penalties in regulation/extra-time of a World Cup match, tied for the most with Spain and the United States.
Poland have never lost or drawn when leading at half-time in a World Cup match, and they extended that by winning their 10th game when ahead at the break by beating Saudi Arabia.
Poland: A crucial clash against Argentina is at 2 pm ET on Wednesday at Stadium 974, in a match pitting two of the modern era’s greatest players — Lewandowski and Lionel Messi — against one another.
Saudi Arabia: Despite this setback, Saudi Arabia knows that they will progress to the knockout phase if they can beat Mexico at Lusial Stadium no matter what happens in the other Group C match.