Spirited Poland hold Russia
A wonder goal from Jakub Blaszczykowski gave Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland a 1-1 Group A draw with Russia in a feisty, entertaining clash at Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw.
Alan Dzagoev’s deft header had given Russia the half-time lead after an enthralling opening 45 minutes saw the Poles create several good chances only to be denied by fine goalkeeping from Vyacheslav Malafeev, the width of a goalpost and some desperate defending.
But Franciszek Smuda’s side continued to be adventurous on the break in the second half and they were rewarded in style when skipper Blaszczykowski unleashed a ferocious left-footed curler past Malafeev and inside the far post, having bought the space with a fine touch off the impressive Ludovic Obraniak’s pass from the right.
The result leaves Russia top of Group A with four points, needing just a draw against Greece to ensure qualification for the quarter-finals.
Poland, meanwhile, need a win against local rivals Czech Republic on June 16 in what promises to be a thrilling do-or-die encounter in Wroclaw.
Speaking of local rivalry, there had been plenty of tension in the build-up to this match, which coincided with Russia’s Independence Day. A celebratory march through Warsaw by visiting fans had sparked violence beforehand, with local hooligans and Russian supporters clashing in ugly scenes that saw police wade in amidst several injuries and arrests.
There was also an air of animosity as rival fans booed each other’s anthems, with the usual Eastern European rivalry with Russia heightened by the death of Poland's president Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash in Russian airspace two years ago.
On the pitch it was an entirely different matter as two attack-minded sides with contrasting styles did battle in a largely sportsmanlike encounter.
Russia did most of their work with the ball, while Poland defended stoutly and used their pacy wide-men on the break.
Initially that approach seemed to benefit the Poles as, with Aleksandr Kerzhakov a blunt instrument for Russia up front, the early chances fell to the hosts.
Dick Advoccat’s side were saved by a fine Malefeev stop to keep out Sebastian Boenisch’s close-range header from Obraniak’s pinpoint free-kick, while star man Robert Lewandowski went agonisingly close with a flick and volley.
When the French-born Obraniak’s fine low ball flashed across the face of goal with Lewandowski and Blaszczykowski unable to convert, it looked like it might not be Poland’s night.
That theory gained momentum when, after a needless shove by Marcin Wasilewski on Yuri Zhirkov, Arshavin’s excellent curling cross was nodded home by the 21-year-old Dzagoev, who has three goals in his first two matches at a major finals.
It was Russia’s first real chance, although they had been denied by some fine tackles from the imperious Damien Perquis, another naturalised Frenchman, and some weak forward play by Kerzhakov, who was replaced by Roman Pavlyuchenko.
The second half saw Poland adopt a more direct strategy, one which paid off. Lewandowski was twice denied by Malafeev’s sprawling frame, while Perquis headed just over from a corner. Russia, meanwhile, were suddenly forced to resort to the counter-attack, from which Arshavin scuffed a low finish wide after a mazy dribble.
When Poland’s leveller came it was deserved – and it was a beauty. Swiftly countering after a spell of Russian possession, Obraniak hared down the right before feeding a low ball to Blaszczykowski.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder, whose tragic upbringing dominated pre-tournament headlines, was running at full pace yet cut the ball in with his right foot before unleashing a glorious effort that swerved wide of the diving Malafeev before nestling inside the far post to provoke scenes of joy on the pitch and stands.
That came just before the hour mark and the match lost some of its spark from thereon in. Russia seemed content to hog possession and limit Poland’s counter-attacks, safe in the knowledge they were still in the group driving seat, while Smuda’s men focused on preventing a recurrence of their implosion against the Greeks.
There were half chances for Dzagoev and Eugen Polanski, but neither keeper was truly tested, although the latter stages did see a more frantic approach adopted when Poland won a series of free-kicks.
But a draw was the fair result, one which sees Poland with a fighting chance of progress – if they play like this against an unimpressive Czech side, there is no reason why they cannot make history again.