Dubai: Saudi Arabia were superb in their opening game against tournament favourites Argentina where they pulled off the biggest shock in the history of the FIFA World Cup by winning 2-1.
Such was the magnitude of the result that a national holiday was announced the very next day in the Kingdom. Sure, they were shaky in the first half against the two-time champions but that was to be expected. They went a goal down to a Messi penalty but came out in the second half a different team, scored two fantastic goals and then defended superbly to seal the win. And against Poland, they started the way they finished against Argentina, on the front foot and in control of the game.
They were very lively way and there was no fear in the way they played. They weren’t just waiting to soak up the pressure - they looked like a team that enjoyed playing with each other and understood each other. Every time they attacked or put in a tackle there was a huge volume of noise inside the Education City Stadium where the Saudi support far outweighed the Polish.
They knew they would progress to the last 16 with a win for the first time since 1994. Many teams can buckle under this sort of pressure but to their credit, Saudi stood firm but it was Poland who broke the deadlock five minutes before half time with Piotr Zielinski drilling into the roof of the net.
The goal came totally against the run of play but moments later Saudi were given a lifeline when they were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Salem Al Dawsari – their match-winner against Argentina – but he saw his effort saved by Wojciech Szczesny. The loose ball fell to Mohammed Al Burayk but his effort was tipped over the bar. It was a brilliant double save but it was heartbreak for Saudi who deserved a break for the way they competed in the first 45.
They came storming out for the second period and should have drawn level after a cross from the left landed at the feet of Saleh Al Shehri who tried to bundle his way through but was crowded out and then Al Dawsari blazed high and wide.
Poland came back on the counter attack they almost doubled their lead but Arkadiusz Milik’s header came back off the cross bar. Seconds later they were denied by the woodwork again when Robert Lewandowski met a cross from the right, but his initial flick with his right foot glanced into his left foot and came back off the post.
Still, Saudi Arabia kept breaking through the lines and as the clock ticked down Poland were getting more and more stretched. On the touchline Saudi coach Herve Renard was running up and down, desperately directing his players, screaming for them to play the ball forward. The game lost a little bit of structure and was almost Dutch total football from the Saudis who almost drew level again but Feras Al Brikan dragged his effort wide of the far post.
But then came the sucker punch with 10 minutes remaining. Abdulelah Al Malki allowed the ball to slip away and was robbed by Robert Lewandowski and the 34-year-old composed himself and slotted home. It was his fifth World Cup game and he finally got his first goal.
To their credit the Green Falcons continued to attack but the whistle blew for full time and they were left to rue that penalty miss. But on this evidence, they should be able to beat Mexico in their final game and if they do the last 16 awaits.