Poland boss Adam Nawałka was applauded into his post-match press conference, after a 2-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland ensured guidance through a qualifying campaign for the first time since 2007. First half goals from Grzegorz Krychowiak and Robert Lewandowski, either side of a Jonathan Walters penalty, were just enough to secure a third straight appearance at the European Championships, avoiding a perilous play-off.
The Polish faithful – both the 50,000 seated in the Narodowy, and the millions watching on TV – were forced to sweat though, with the result of a ten-game qualification schedule eventually going down to five minutes of added time. An Irish equaliser would have instead seen them through in second place, with the Poles placed in the hat for another two games next month; but despite late pressure from the visitors, it was relieved by both towering defensive work and great goalkeeping, before Irish captain John O’Shea’s dismissal in stoppage time allowed breath to finally be taken, and tickets to France booked.
Having just beaten the World Champions in Dublin, the Poles were well aware of the challenge which lay in front of them; and having played-out a 1-1 draw at the Aviva Stadium in March, nothing was being taken for granted. Shane Long, scorer of Ireland’s last-minute equaliser seven months ago, was preferred to start in the Irish attack, allowing for the introduction of Robbie Keane should Martin O’Neill require extra firepower in the later stages of the game.
Adam Nawałka too made changes to his eleven which had battled to a dramatic draw in Glasgow, and not all by choice. Left-back Maciej Rybus and Striker Arkadiusz Milik were ruled out through injury, and replaced by Jakub Wawrzyniak and Karol Linetty respectively; while Jakub Błaszczykowski’s omission for Cologne defender Paweł Olkowski was a little bit more of a surprise.
With a low-scoring draw enough for the Biało-Czerwoni to progress, they stormed out of the blocks; and before even a quarter-of-an-hour had passed they had gained their advantage. A corner from Stade Rennes winger Kamil Grosicki was directed towards the edge of the box, and the waiting Krychowiak. With one touch to control, the Sevilla midfielder calmly fired through the crowd and into the bottom-left corner, leaving Irish stand-in keeper Darren Randolph rooted to the ground.
Within minutes though, the home crowd were silenced. A long Irish ball forward was flicked over the Polish defence; and as Michał Pazdan instinctively tried to latch a foot onto it to hook clear, Long raced in and was adjudged to have been caught on the head by the Legia Warsaw defender. Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir controversially pointed to the spot; and although Łukasz Fabiański guessed correctly, Jonathan Walters’ strike was just out of his reach.
Aware that one Irish goal would require them to score two; the Poles quickly began to build-up a foothold in the match, and soon had the ball in the net through makeshift right-winger Olkowski. Star striker Lewandowski was correctly adjudged to have strayed into an offside position though, while the visitors held off a few more Polish attacks.
But with half-time in their sights, they could hold-off no longer. With Lech youngster Karol Linetty advancing into the Irish box, Kamil Glik played a perfect ball for him to control on the byline. Cutting back to Krzysztof Mączyński, the Wisła man played a perfect ball onto the head of the diving Lewandowski. Already committed in the other direction, Randolph was powerless to deny the hitman’s thirteenth of the campaign – levelling David Healy’s qualification record in the process.
Knowing now that a draw would be sufficient to progress, Ireland began to look at making attacking changes; although an injury to Shane Long stifled their ability in front of goal. Meanwhile strong defending from Glik and Pazdan, and expert commandeering of his area from Fabiański relieved most major threats to the Polish goal. When the visitors did get a sight of the target, good saves from the Swansea keeper managed to keep the Poles’ heads in front.
At the other end, Randolph too was in good form, denying Grosicki when an extension of the Poles’ lead looked certain; while Seamus Coleman managed to track back to just get to the ball ahead of Lewandowski, with the Bayern man bearing down on goal.
With time running-out, the Irish pumped the ball forward in search of a last-gasp goal which would secure a berth in France next summer; but deep into stoppage time Polish pressure was relieved, when John O’Shea picked up a second booking for a cynical foul on Lewandowski.
Exactly one year on from their famous first victory over Germany, Nawałka’s success ensured Poland’s representation at the European Championships for a third successive tournament; although given their automatic qualification for the last, it is actually the first time since 2007 that the Poles have successfully navigated a qualifying campaign. Attention will now turn to whether, for the first time in thirty years, the Poles – led by their unstoppable captain Lewandowski – can find a way to progress past the group stage of an international tournament.
Poland – Republic of Ireland 2:1 (2:1)
2016 European Championships Qualifier – Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw
Krychowiak 13′. Lewandowski 42′ – Walters (pen.) 16′
Łukasz Fabiański – Łukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Michał Pazdan, Jakub Wawrzyniak – Grzegorz Krychowiak, Karol Linetty – Paweł Olkowski (Jakub Błaszczykowski 63′), Krzysztof Mączyński (Łukasz Szukała 77′), Kamil Grosicki (Sławomir Peszko 85′) – Robert Lewandowski (c).
Coach: Adam Nawałka
Darren Randolph – Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea (c), Richard Keogh, Robbie Brady – James McClean (Wes Hoolahan 73′), James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan (Aiden McGeady 57′), Jeff Hendrick – Jon Walters, Shane Long (Robbie Keane 55′).
Coach: Martin O’Neill
Glik 74′ – O’Shea 19′, 90+2′, Walters 90+5′, Whelan 45+1′
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey)