An emotional Robert Lewandowski scored his first World Cup goal as Poland brought Saudi Arabia back down to earth with a bump on Saturday with a 2-0 Group C victory that rejuvenated their tournament campaign.
Poland’s record scorer, who missed a penalty in their opening stalemate with Mexico and drew a blank in Russia four years ago, was visibly moved after finally finding the net, wiping his eyes as team mates piled on top of him.
The striker had pounced on a mistake in the 82nd minute to double Poland’s advantage after Piotr Zielinski had given them a first-half lead at the Education City Stadium.
After completing one of the tournament’s greatest ever shocks when they cut Argentina down to size in their opener, the Saudis, who missed a first-half penalty, found Poland a tougher nut to crack.
The win moved Poland to four points, one more than Saudi Arabia, and left them needing a draw in their final game against Argentina next Wednesday to guarantee their spot in the knockouts.
The performance was also a great improvement from their opener against Mexico, when coach Czeslaw Michniewicz had faced scrutiny for an over-cautious approach.
“Only together we can succeed,” he told reporters. “The result will sweeten everything, when you win everything hurts less.”
Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament, will head into their final match against Mexico with all still to play for, while Argentina play Mexico later on Saturday.
“We are still alive, we didn’t lose because we weren’t lucky, we lost because we weren’t efficient,” Saudi coach Herve Renard said.
It was effectively a home match for the Saudis with their raucous fans, who had made the short journey across the border, far outnumbering their Polish counterparts.
Their team gave them plenty to shout about too in the early stages as they were by far the more ambitious, pressing high against the Poles, who seemed lethargic in comparison.
Poland survive Saudi onslaught
The encounter was spiky. The Saudis frequently hit the deck, with the referee, who dished out four yellow cards in five first-half minutes, seeming willing to oblige a feisty crowd baying for punishment.
There were half-chances for both sides before the game sprang to life in the 39th minute when Poland shook themselves from their slumber to take the lead.
Matty Cash skipped down the right and crossed low for Lewandowski who lifted it over the keeper and pulled it back for Zielinski to fire into the roof of the net.
Their hopes of cruising through to halftime, however, were ended four minutes later when Krystian Bielik made minimal contact with the back of Saleh Al-Shehri’s leg and he hit the turf.
The referee had initially waved away Saudi appeals but he was instructed to look at the VAR monitor and pointed to the spot.
Salem Al-Dawsari’s low effort, however, was palmed away one-handed by Wojciech Szczesny, who was quickly on his feet to parry the follow up from Mohammed Al-Breik brilliantly over the bar.
The Saudis were almost level early in the second half when Al-Dawsari’s shot was well saved by Szczesny’s legs and a better chance was then spurned by Firas Al-Buraikan who wildly slashed his effort wide with only Szczesny to beat.
Poland could have extended their lead when Arkadiusz Milik’s header rattled the crossbar while Lewandowski hit the post with an effort that deflected off his knee.
The prolific Lewandowski, who is unused to fallow periods in front of goal, had not scored in his four previous World Cup games, but did not have to wait too much longer.
Abdulelah Al-Malki slipped and Lewandowski pounced, robbing him of the ball before sliding a tidy finish beyond Mohamed Al-Owais and into the net for his 77th international goal.