If points were given for effort, then Armenia deserved their fair share; however Robert Lewandowski’s last-gasp header handed Poland a narrow 2-1 victory in Group E, and ensured that the visitors return to Yerevan with absolutely nothing to show for their battling.
The ten-thousand empty seats around the Stadion Narodowy signalled that fans weren’t prepared to make the journey on a Tuesday night, against an opponent perceived as weaker than the Danes who visited three days earlier. But what they did miss was a Poland side throwing everything at their opponents, and an Armenian team not willing to show too much respect for their hosts.
Adam Nawałka was forced into at least two changes from the team which held on for victory against Denmark on Saturday, with injuries to both Arkadiusz Milik and Łukasz Piszczek gifting starts for Maciej Rybus and Łukasz Teodorczyk. But rather than play Rybus at left-back, Nawałka opted to instead play Jakub Błaszczykowski in the back four, allowing Rybus his more natural position on the wing.
As has become fashion in recent games, Poland started strongly, and had several early chances to take the lead. Maciej Rybus hit the side netting early on, sending many in the stadium into a false sense of rapture; while two early Teodorczyk chances went begging – one failing to connect to a free header, and another heading straight at the grateful Arsen Beglaryan in the Armenian goal.
Stout defending by the Armenians soon became a theme of the evening, but on some occasions it became a little too stout. And when centre-back Gael Andonian committed two late tackles on Teodorczyk within the space of just three minutes, the Slovakian referee wasted little time in dishing-out successive yellow cards; meaning the visitors would be forced to play with ten for over an hour.
With the red card, Nawałka brought on Paweł Wszołek to add more attacking power to his side, however Armenia boss Varuzhan Sukiasyan counted by bringing on another defender to his already-defensive line-up; and created a seven-man back line, which Lewandowski and co. struggled to break down.
Sensing that his team’s incessant attacking would eventually lead to a goal, Nawałka chose to lead the second half with the elven which ended the first, and within two minutes of the restart his thinking proved correct.
A free-kick on the right-hand side was deflected goalwards by captain Lewandowski, who wheeled away in delight. The goal was declared on the big screens around the stadium to have been his, although replays showed it may have taken a vital deflection off of an Armenian defender before settling in the net.
But just as in their previous match, barely had the fans had time to settle before the ball was in the net at the other end. This time a free-kick on the Armenian right was flicked goalwards by Marcos Pizzelli, and although Fabiański was able to get a hand to the ball, it wasn’t enough to keep it out of the goal.
While Armenia once again seemed happy to sit eight-or-nine players behind the ball, the Poles were rattled, and keeping one man up front as an outlet they were able to fashion several chances but were unable to convert.
Still Poland looked the stronger team, but still they struggled to find gaps in a stubborn Armenian defence; and on the odd occasion that they did, they were either undone by tame shooting or strong goalkeeping.
Nawałka continued with attacking substitutions as the game wore on, bringing Bartosz Kapustka and Kamil Wilczek into an already top-heavy line-up; but Armenia were able to deal with everything thrown at them, and looked to be heading back home with an impressive point.
But as the game entered its final throngs, the national hero Lewandowski found himself in the right place at the right time, heading Rybus’ free-kick – the very last touch of the game – into the back of the net, sending the Poles joint top of Group E after three games.
With six points from their two home games, Nawałka’s now men find themselves on the road next time out for a tough trip to Bucharest to face Romania, where victory will already put them in a strong position to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
In truth though, after nervy performances in all three of their qualifying outings so far, the Białe-Orły will need to collect themselves and take absolutely nothing for granted – no matter who the opponent.
FIFA World Cup 2018 Qualifying Group E – Stadion Narodowy, Warsaw
Poland – Armenia 2:1 (0:0)
Lewandowski 47′, 90+4 – Pizzelli 49′
Łukasz Fabiański – Jakub Błaszczykowski, Kamil Glik, Thiago Cionek, Artur Jędrzejczyk (Paweł Wszołek 34′) – Kamil Grosicki (Bartosz Kapustka 70′), Grzegorz Krychowiak, Piotr Zieliński, Maciej Rybus – Łukasz Teodorczyk (Kamil Wilczek 85′), Robert Lewandowski.
Coach: Adam Nawałka
Arsen Beglaryan – Vahagn Minasyan, Varazdat Haroyan, Hrayr Mkoyan, Gael Andonian, Levon Hayrapetyan – Kamo Hovhannisyan (Aras Ozbiliz 61′), Karen Muradyan (Taron Voshanyan 34′), Artak Grigoryan, Davit Manoyan – Marcos Pizzelli (Davit Hakobyan 85′).
Coach: Varuzhan Sukiasyan
Cionek 35′, Błaszczykowski 87′ – Andonian 27′, 29′
Referee: Ivan Kruzliak (SVK)