Robert Lewandowski ended his wait for a first World Cup goal as Poland took a significant step towards reaching the knockout stage for the first time in 36 years by beating Saudi Arabia 2-0 on Saturday.
Talisman Lewandowski’s penalty failure against Mexico had denied Poland an opening win but he and they made amends at Education City Stadium, toppling Argentina’s conquerors to blow Group C wide open.
Although Saudi Arabia were largely more impressive than in their smash-and-grab defeat of Argentina, they again fell behind and this time could not recover — the latest episode of spot-kick drama making a hero of Wojciech Szczesny after he denied Salem Al Dawsari.
Either side of that save, Lewandowski assisted the opening goal for Piotr Zielinski and belatedly netted a breakthrough strike to make sure of a win that moves Poland to four points ahead of themselves taking on Lionel Messi and Co.
Matty Cash raced onto an incisive pass six minutes before the break and squared to Lewandowski, whose first touch took him away from goal before he cut the ball back for Zielinski’s clinical finish.
The response might have been swift as a VAR review granted Saleh Al Shehri a soft penalty following contact from Krystian Bielik, but Szczesny sensationally repelled Al Dawsari’s spot-kick and then — even more spectacularly — Mohammed Al Burayk’s follow-up.
Szczesny had to come to Poland’s rescue again 10 minutes after the restart, blocking with his legs from Al Dawsari, and Feras Al Brikan and Mohammed Kanno each blazed wildly off target.
Poland squandered chances to put the game to bed as first Arkadiusz Milik and then Lewandowski worked the frame of the goal but the Barcelona man eventually got his goal after pinching possession from Abdulelah Al Malki and finishing calmly.
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Even in victory, Czeslaw Michniewicz’s men were not especially impressive, although Lewandowski would have felt the weight of the world lift off his shoulders with a first goal in his fifth finals match.
Vitally, Poland also have a star performer at the other end of the pitch. Their strong position in this group is chiefly down to their back-to-back clean sheets, now having kept three in a row stretching back to 2018 – matching their best such sequence.
Poland penalty heroics
Poland have now faced five penalties at World Cups, yet three of them have been saved. Szczesny’s stop sees him join Jan Tomaszewski, who kept out two at the 1970 tournament.
The save from Al Burayk on the rebound was truly remarkable, while Szczesny had also early made a sharp stop from Kanno and would later frustrate Al Dawsari again.
Tempers boil over
Played in front of a raucous — primarily Saudi — crowd, a kind observer might call this encounter “competitive”. Players from both sides thundered into challenges, occasionally with both arms and legs.
In the opening 30 minutes, the sides shared more yellow cards (four) than shots (three). By half-time, there had been five bookings — the most cards at that stage of a World Cup game since the famously feisty 2010 final.
It seemed inevitable there would be a red card eventually, but it never came.
Key Opta facts
Saudi Arabia have lost each of their last nine World Cup matches against European teams dating back to 1994, while failing to score a single goal across the last eight.
They have also only kept one clean sheet in their 18 matches at the World Cup – indeed, among teams with at least 10 games played, Saudi Arabia have the lowest clean sheet ratio in the tournament’s history (6 per cent).
Szczesny is the third goalkeeper to save a penalty and keep a clean sheet in the same match at the 2022 World Cup (after Thibaut Courtois and Guillermo Ochoa); already the most times this happened in a single World Cup since 1966 (when data is available).
Lewandowski scored his first goal for Poland at the World Cup, on what was his fifth appearance in the competition. Having also assisted their opener, he became the first Polish player to score and assist in a World Cup match since Janusz Kupcewicz in 1982 (v France).
Zielinski has been directly involved in 14 goals for club and country combined in 2022-23, with an exact split between goals (7) and assists (7). Today’s goal was his first at the World Cup for Poland.
Poland must still play their toughest fixture on paper, taking on an Argentina side who will need to win. Saudi Arabia remain in contention ahead of facing Mexico at the same time on Wednesday.