Szczesny denies Saudis early progress into knockout rounds as Poland win 2-0
AL RAYYAN, Qatar - Despite a raucuous crowd that roared every shot, tackle and dribble they made, Saudi Arabia’s players were not able to claim a win over Poland in their Group C game on Saturday, instead falling 2-0 at the Education City Stadium. A victory would have made them the first team at the World Cup to qualify for the knockout round.
Piotr Zielinski scored in the 40th minute and the Saudis missed a spot-kick taken by star man Salem Al-Dawsari, before Robert Lewandowski pounced on a defensive error late on to keep Poland’s own hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages for the first time since 1986.
The Saudis had sensationally stunned tournament favourites Argentina, led by seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi on Tuesday - a historic upset which was marked by a public holiday in the kingdom - and had been seeking to reach the tournament’s last 16 for the first time in 28 years.
Thousands of Saudis have flooded in from across the border, some on flights, some driving over.
Saudi Arabia ranks third on the list of ticket-purchasing countries for the tournament, according to Fifa sales numbers, and it was evident with them making up over 90 per cent of the 44,259 fans in the stadium, where a partially closed roof amplified the noise they generated.
The players responded with a bright start, and in the 12th minute, midfielder Mohamed Kanno saw his powerful shot tipped over by Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
But the Arab side struggled to carve out clear scoring opportunities, and instead conceded against the run of play when Zielinski hammered home from close range five minutes before the break.
The Saudis had a chance to equalise from the penalty spot before the break but Al-Dawsari saw his penalty saved by Szczesny, who also superbly blocked a rebound shot from Mohammed Al-Burayk.
The Saudis started the second half strongly again and Salman Al-Faraj almost nipped in to equalise after a goalmouth scramble, only for Szczesny to prove a barrier again.
Poland could have racked up the goals playing on the counter-attack - Arkadiusz Milik hit the crossbar, and then upright inside two minutes - but Lewandowski eased jangling nerves in the 82nd minute with a typically cool finish. It was the 2020 Fifa Men’s Player of the Year’s first goal at the World Cup, having drawn a blank in 2018.
By the end, the statistics told their own story. According to Fifa, the Saudis had over 50 per cent of possession compared to about 30 per cent for Poland, with the ball in contest for the remainder. The Asians also fashioned 15 attempts at goal, almost double of their opponents’ eight.
But as Lewandowski and his countrymen trotted off the pitch in Al Rayyan to disgruntled jeers from the Saudi fans who remained, they can be satisfied with their afternoon’s work in the knowledge that ultimately quality mattered over quantity.