Having just about overcome Switzerland, Adam Nawalka and his players will hope this is an omen.
Neutrals will simply hope for some more of the end-to-end, shifting momentum that characterised th match. The negative approach of Portugal against Croatia, together with Poland’s impressive defensive record, might give reason for a certain trepidation.
It was Lukasz Fabianski, rather than the first-choice Wojciech Szczesny, who ended up conceding Poland’s first goal of the tournament in Saint-Etienne, eight minutes from the end of game four, but there was no question of blame being attached. If there is a better goal in this tournament than Xherdan Shaqiri’s stupendous scissor-kick that beat Fabianski to take the game into extra-time, we will be lucky – even if Shaqiri responded to an inquiry about the “best” goal of his career by saying “I always score nice goals”.
After an authoritative first-half display, Poland hung on grimly against a resurgent Switzerland. That it took a stroke of genius from Shaqiri to break through was largely down to Fabianski, who notably made a fingertip save from Ricardo Rodríguez’s excellent free-kick. Fabianski then made sure the contest went the distance with an even better reaction stop from the substitute Eren Derdiyok’s header in the second period of extra-time.
If Szczesny had not suffered a badly-bruised thigh in the opener against Northern Ireland, Fabianski would still be filling one of the least enviable roles in the squad, that of default cheerleader. Instead, he has become a central figure.
“It’s the life of a goalkeeper really,” he mused, reflecting on a peripatetic international career. “It’s always been like that, especially in the national team. You can never really please everyone [of the coaches]. There will always be one happy [goalkeeper] and the other … not disappointed, but a little bit frustrated, because we’re playing regularly in our clubs.”
After leaving behind a similar situation with Arsenal and becoming the main man at Swansea after his 2014 move, he has had to bide his time again, and is seizing the moment. “Wojciech started and I just had roll up my sleeves, work harder and try to prepare for anything,” he said. “The situation with the Wojciech injury happened and I had to be ready.” He certainly was. Fabianski even managed a penultimate pass of sorts for his team’s goal, with his prodigious throw setting away Kamil Grosicki, who played in Jakub Blaszczykowski to score.Szczesny was magnanimous about his perceived rival, whom he has known since he was 14. Fabianski was 19 at the time. “I knew he was going to be a top goalkeeper the day I met him,” said the Arsenal man. “He’s had a chance to prove himself and I’m delighted for him. I think today he made the difference for us.”
After Fabianski’s heroics during the 120 minutes, he was not required to perform any more during the shootout as Granit Xhaka sliced Switzerland’s second spot-kick wide. “I’m sorry for my team-mates, for the travelling fans, for Switzerland,” the Arsenal-bound Xhaka told Swiss television. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will make sure I come back even stronger … And I promise I will step up at the next penalty shootout.”
When Poland reach the Stade Vélodrome, they will hope their expected difference-maker finally steps up. Robert Lewandowski did finally manage an effort on target, but was largely subdued, playing a deeper role in support of Arkadiusz Milik. With the first-half chances that Milik missed and with it the opportunity to decisively tilt the game in Poland’s favour, Nawalka might want to swap that positioning, though he praised the Bayern Munich striker for “taking the opponents’ attention away from other players”.
Fabianski also praised Lewandowski’s work, pointing out that it was he that forced the panic between the goalkeeper Yann Sommer and Johan Djourou that almost presented Milik with a goal in the opening 30 seconds. “That’s what he gives us, even though we’re not creating as much as we would like to for him.” Whoever gets the chances in Marseille, Poland will have to cut out the profligacy to avoid suffering the same slow demise that Croatia did against Portugal.
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