Slovakia got off to a great start at the European Championship on Monday afternoon, putting in a disciplined performance to beat Poland at the Krestovsky Stadium in Sankt Petersburg. The deadlock was broken in the 18th minute as Robert Mak drove past two opponents coming in down the left and smashed his tight-angle shot low off the post and the arm of Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny before it bounced into the net. Karol Linetty equalized by getting on the end of a nice pullback by Maciej Rybus in the first minute after the break, only to see Milan Skriniar have the final say for the Slovaks in the 69th, smashing a half-volley in from around 15 yards.
It certainly isn’t easy to keep a striker who scored 48 goals in 40 matches in 2020-21 quiet, but Slovakia managed it. It should also be said that Poland’s lack of creativity in midfield helped them greatly; the Bayern Munich striker was forced to drop all the way back to the middle of the pitch to get involved, with his teammates struggling to get the ball to him when positioned nearer to Slovakia’s goal.
It’s not that Lewandowski wasn’t trying; he dropped deep to help in the buildup, he pulled into wide positions to open up space for runners through the middle, and fought with all his might against the tall Slovakian centre-backs when long passes went his way, but apart from a few set-piece situations and a few half-chances, he never really came close to scoring and that was surely one of the biggest reasons for Slovakia’s slightly surprising triumph in this match.
Poland were generally considered favourites ahead of the match, and a look at its stats may give off an impression that the point of view wasn’t that far off, despite the final scoreline. They had 58% possession, took a total of 17 shots towards Martin Dubravka’s goal, completed more passes with greater accuracy that the opposition, and even after Grzegorz Krychoviak got his marching orders in the 62nd minute, nothing changed in that aspect.
But the truth is, Slovakia had them exactly where they wanted them. The apparent control Poland had over the course of the match was just that, a veil over their eyes with Slovakia quite happy to sit deep for large parts of the game and defend. The paths leading to Dubravka were responsibly blocked practically throughout, and it took all the skill Paulo Sousa’s men possess to get sight of the Slovakian goalkeeper on the few occasions when they did, including Linetty’s goal.
Poland looked a bit livelier after the break, which is undoubtedly what brought about the equalizer. Linetty was obviously instructed to make runs into the box more frequently and either help Lewandowski in there, or benefit from his presence as Slovakia defenders struggled to keep hold of the Bayern star. Maybe things would have worked out a bit different had it not been for Krychowiak’s second booking, but as it was, Slovakia hung back and twice took their chance to score – their only two shots on target, in fact.
Harsh on Krychowiak
It should be said in their defence that the decisions of referee Ovidiu Hategan to show the experienced midfielder two yellow cards and consequently the red, seemed very harsh. He barely touched Jakub Hromada on the shoulder in the 22nd minute and received the first.
The second could, perhaps, be argued on. Again it was a foul on Hromada, and again Hromada seemed to have manipulated the referee into giving him what he wanted. The Slovakia midfielder went down with a scream as Krychowiak stepped into him slightly as they fought for the ball. It seemed on the edge of a bookable offence, but given Krychowiak already had a yellow card, the Romanian referee probably should have let him off with a warning that time.
Poland hadn’t really recovered from the shock of going a man down when Skriniar struck the winning goal for Slovakia. One would have hoped that a referee at this level would have refrained from making likely match-deciding decisions without much need, but it seems Hategan didn’t really mind making it all about himself for a moment or two.
Be that as it may, Poland now have a difficult task ahead. Spain on Saturday and Sweden on Wednesday are likely to prove much harder to beat than Slovakia, and they desperately need to. On the other hand, Slovakia will be pleased with the three points and will move into the remaining fixtures in Group E with less pressure on their backs.
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