Victory over Lionel Messi and Argentina in their group opener is a great start to anyone’s World Cup 2022 odyssey, but for a team like Saudi Arabia, who possess players only from the country’s domestic league and playing the tournament in the Middle East, it will probably never get any better.
Understandably, the mood among fans coming into their second group game against another, current Barcelona superstar Robert Lewandowski, was buoyant to put it mildly, as victory would remarkably put the international football minnow into the knockout stages for the second time in their history with a game to spare.
On another day, they would have achieved such, missing a penalty and a host of other chances, but ultimately they came up short, leaving the supporters who packed out the Education City Stadium in central Doha wondering what might have been.
For Lewandowski, however, at last the wait for his World Cup goal is over, with the tears in celebration showing just what it meant for a man who has had to wait so long to open his account on the grandest of stages. However, the veteran striker, and the rest of the nation back home, must also reserve huge thanks to a penalty-saving expert goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, for earning Poland a pivotal 2-0 win.
Ahead of kick off, it appeared, once again at this World Cup, that there were swathes of empty seats, but on closer inspection those green stadium seats had been replaced by a sea of green-shirted, vocal Saudi supporters, there in their droves.
There was not a spare seat in the house as either those in green or in the traditional thobes brought the best atmosphere the World Cup has seen thus far, outnumbering their Polish counterparts by 10 to one.
With their opponents backed by what would have felt like a home crowd, still on a high after their heroics against Argentina last time out and persevering with their “Messi, where are you” terrace chant, Poland looked like rabbits caught in headlights early on as Saudi Arabia flew into challenges, each of which was celebrated by supporters as if their team had scored.
They did not look like a team who had lost nine of their previous 10 World Cup games against European nations, having not scored a single goal in their last seven.
Mohamed Kanno forced a fine save from Szczesny early on as the men in green pressed, but slowly Poland grew into the contest.
Krystian Bielik’s header was well blocked before Lewandowski helped his team edge in front, brilliantly laying the ball back for Piotr Zielinski to fire home the opener.
There was still time before the break for Saudi Arabia to be presented with a golden opportunity to level things up after being awarded a penalty for a foul on Saleh Al-Shehri following a VAR review.
Up stepped scorer of the famous wonder-goal that shocked the world against Argentina, Salem Aldawsari, but Szczesny made a superb save, only to get up and make an even better stop to deny Mohammed Al-Burayk from the rebound.
Saving spot kicks is all in a day’s work for the Juventus goalkeeper: he became the first stopper to save three Serie A penalties in a row in March.
Perhaps coach Herve Renard had given another of his Churchillian speeches at the break as the Saudis kept coming in the second half, but a combination of poor decision-making and woeful finishing ensured Szczesny remained unbeaten.
Sensing one more goal would quash the Saudi spirit, Poland turned things up a notch and should have extended their lead just after the hour mark as Arkadiusz Milik’s header came out off the crossbar, before Lewandowski hit the post as it appeared his World Cup frustrations were set to continue.
To their credit, the Saudis continued to do everything but score, with Abdulelah Almalki dragging the next golden opportunity wide, before the Al-Hilal midfielder’s slip opened things up for Lewandowski’s moment, which had been 34 years in the making.
The finish for his 77th international goal and game-clinching second was easy, after Almalki’s mistake, but that did not mean the celebrations were any less jubilant, with the entire Poland squad jumping on their talisman.
As he emerged from the pack, the tears flowed. At long last, a World Cup goalscorer. And what a crucial goal it could prove to be.