The tears welling in the eyes of Robert Lewandowski after he struck the goal that sealed Poland’s victory over Saudi Arabia on Saturday showed the immense weight on his shoulders from having never scored in a World Cup.
After dispossessing Abdulelah Al-Malki and slotting home eight minutes from the end for an unexpected 2-0 win, Poland’s most prolific marksman dived to the ground and team mates piled on top of him as they all celebrated Lewandowski finally breaking his World Cup duck.
The pressure was always on for the Barcelona forward after failing to score in Poland’s three matches in the 2018 World Cup and Tuesday’s opening draw against Mexico. Aged 34, and with Poland’s patchy World Cup qualifying record, Qatar might have been his last chance.
But of all the games, this was the one that mattered most.
Poland needed at least a draw to stand any real chance of getting to the last 16 for the first time since 1986 and with Argentina left to play, few would fancy their chances.
It looked like Saturday’s Group C match was not going to go Poland’s way, with their opponents riding on a wave of their historic defeat of Argentina earlier this week and while also being gifted a string of favourable refereeing decisions.
Poland were playing before a deafening, overwhelmingly Saudi crowd that was excited, rapturous and hostile, booing and jeering nearly every Polish move.
Lewandowski could have scored after 11 minutes when Matty Cash won the ball with a superb sliding tackle and put him clean through on goal, only for referee Wilton Sampaio to rule a foul had been committed.
In a first half dominated by slick Saudi counter-attacking and almost comical amounts of gamesmanship from the Gulf side, Poland received three yellow cards in the space of four minutes and were on the wrong end of a VAR penalty decision the Poles will deem harsh.
Lewandowski was pivotal in both of Poland’s goals and most their attacks and worked magic in the 39th minute when he lifted the ball over the keeper and somehow kept it in play and cut back to Piotr Zielinski to blast into the roof of the net.
Poland coach Czeslaw Michniewicz switched tactics from the Mexico match where Lewandowski was the sole forward. On Saturday he was partnered with Arkadiusz Milik, who came close to scoring with a spectacular diving header that cannoned off the crossbar just after the hour mark.
It was the help Lewandowski needed and came after he had publicly asked for a strike partner before Poland’s last Nations League match against Wales in September, which Poland won 1-0.
“I think the older I get, the more emotional I get, and I’m aware that when it comes to the World Cup, it might be my last World Cup actually,” Lewandowski said after scoring his 77th international goal.
“The result of the team was most important… There’s another day and we need to get ready for the next match because we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We need to do all we can.”