‘Let’s play ball’: Poland pray for more in World Cup last-16 tie against France | World Cup 2022

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Zagrajmy w piłkę” – “Let’s play ball”. That was the headline instruction, front and centre, on the Polish website gazeta.pl on Thursday morning after the tense, chaotic conclusion to Group C the night before. Poland had stumbled into the last 16 of the World Cup with a performance so devoid of ambition that the domestic media coverage seemed more like a postmortem than a celebration of reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.

It should have been a day of jubilation. Instead, there seemed to be a wide sense of embarrassment. “We will not tell our grandchildren by the fireplace years later about how the Polish national team progressed from the group at the 2022 World Cup,” wrote Dariusz Tuzimek for SportowyFakty.pl. “When they ask about it, we’ll try to change the subject.”

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“Should Lewandowski be ashamed? The whole world saw that,” was the question in the headline of Tuzimek’s article. “One Wojciech Szczesny was not enough for Argentina and Messi, but still we got through,” said Polityka.pl, a reference to the goalkeeper’s individual heroics in defeat, including a breathtaking first-half penalty save from Lionel Messi.

Facing Argentina and Messi was never going to be straightforward. Yet it was still a frustratingly poor, disjointed display from a team that began the evening top of Group C and in control of their destiny. By the end they were left counting yellow cards – and praying.

As has so often been the case at Poland’s recent tournament appearances, Lewandowski was left isolated, despite Karol Swiderski being nominally selected to play alongside him. The Barcelona forward was left fighting for scraps: on the occasions Poland did win possession he sometimes battled impressively to win a free-kick around halfway. But he never threatened to make a significant impact, certainly not compared to the ever-threatening Messi.

Swiderski, who did not look sure what he was supposed to be doing, mostly became an extra defender rather than a companion for Lewandowski. Even when Lewandowski’s teammates got close enough to link, it felt fragmented and lacking fluency. Despite a lack of service Lewandowski was not above criticism, either. Rather than attempting to inspire the team after they fell behind after half-time, he appeared increasingly withdrawn, his body language negative.

Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16
Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16. Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

The closest Poland came to scoring, appropriately, was a set piece nodded fractionally wide by the centre-back Kamil Glik.

After the final whistle at Stadium 974, when coverage switched to Mexico v Saudi Arabia, it was an immediate reminder of what matches look like when both teams pose an attacking threat. The Saudis underlined the point during a thrilling conclusion by scoring a beautifully worked goal that in effect ended Mexico’s hopes of progress.

The former defender and Poland captain Jacek Bak said Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski was the team’s “invisible representative”. He wondered aloud whether the playmaker had “a mental problem” when playing for his country.

It seemed an appropriate question given the 28-year-old’s indifferent performance against Argentina, give or take a couple of decent set-piece deliveries. Zielinski is the creative lynchpin for Luciano Spalletti’s Partenopei, who lead Serie A by eight points. They are unbeaten in the league, with 13 wins from 15 matches, and have scored 37 goals. In September they memorably thrashed Liverpool 4-1 in the Champions League.

Where is that swashbuckling player? And could the fault lie not with the players but the coach, Czeslaw Michniewicz? Would Zielinski perform better in a central position, where his range of passing and searching runs could do more damage? He also needs someone to shore up the central areas to give him licence to attack. Unfortunately Qatar 2022 appears to be a tournament too far for the former Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain and West Bromwich Albion holding midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak.

There is a parallel between Poland’s frustrating, traumatic history at major tournaments and England’s travails pre-Russia 2018. They do not lack talent but they never seem able to fully show it, to become equal to or greater than the sum of their parts. Many of the players seem fearful of harsh media treatment, conscious of the anger stirred up when pre-tournament hype is regularly replaced by another limp failure.

They have often been paralysed by the potential consequences of elimination, rather than motivated by the ever-elusive rewards of success at a World Cup. The cumulative effect of so many disappointments feeds the anxiety.

Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé
French forward talent such as Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé await Poland in the World Cup last 16. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The good news? They are still in the game. There were times when Poland succeeded in shackling Messi, Ángel Di María and Julián Álvarez quite effectively. At times, driving runs by the full-backs, Matty Cash and Bartosz Bereszynski, helped to make inroads.

Collectively they must carry that defensive solidity into Sunday’s last-16 meeting with Kylian Mbappé and friends. But they must also find a way to take the game to the world champions, to cherish possession rather than surrender it. Standing off and inviting pressure will be a one-way ticket home.

Has anyone told Poland – and Michniewicz – that this is meant to be the greatest show on earth? Their supporters must pray they will find a way to release the handbrake against France. Support Lewandowski, unleash Zielinski. Zagrajmy w piłkę: Let’s play ball.

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