Slovakia produced one of the most resolute performances in Euro 2021 to beat Poland in the first match of Group E at St Petersburg.
Poland is the more fancied team compared to Slovakia, especially with players like Robert Lewandowski in their lineup, and they started the match with great intent. However, it was Slovakia who took the lead to the surprise of many.
The Polish defence, which had only conceded 5 goals in the run-up to the Euro, offered little resistance in the 18th minute as Robert Mak made a fine solo effort, cutting in from the left, then nutmegging a defender and then shooting from the edge of the box. It was a fine effort, but the goal was eventually awarded as an own goal to Szczesny, the Polish goalkeeper. It was a wonderful goal, but Polish fans would be left questioning the team’s defence.
Slovakia’s game plan looked rather simple but effective: absorb the pressure, and attack when needed. It was a testament to the team’s organisation that with nearly 30 minutes, the world’s greatest striker right now, Lewandowski, had barely got into the game. Slovakia’s midfield was putting up a lovely performance, shielding its defence when needed and attacking in the right opportunities. To their credit, their game plan did not change much after the goal and they kept attacking with regularity. Marek Hamsik, the most capped player and the highest ever scorer for Slovakia, tried his luck with repeated shots from distance but to no avail.
Nevertheless, at halftime, Poland, and not Slovakia, were left needing a change in their approach.
And they just that within seconds of the start of the second half.
Linetty swept a pullback from Maciej Rybus into the bottom right corner after great work by Kilch and Lewandowski down the left. Despite a valiant effort, Slovakia and Newcastle United defender Martin Dubravka was unable to keep the ball out. Thirty seconds into the second half, the Polish were on level terms.
One of the key strategic changes made by Poland in the match was that in the second half the Polish played a lot higher up the pitch, which meant more space between the midfield and the attacking line of the Slovaks. But just after the hour mark, the Polish were dealt a severe blow when their number 10, Grzegorz Krychowiak, in his 81st match for Poland, received a second yellow card and thereby the Red Card for a rather unnecessary challenge on Jakub Hromada. With less than 30 minutes to play, the Poles had to somehow go for a win while defending with 10 players. Slovakia, on the other hand, could smell blood; this was their most winnable match in the group. And within minutes, they did just that.
With just 20 minutes to go, up stepped an unlikely contender. Milan Skirniar, the Inter Milan title-winning defender, wonderfully controlled the ball from a corner and his subsequent shot was clean and sharp. Szczesny had no chance of stopping that one. Slovakia had two shots on target and two goals. Clinical. One man down, and chasing the game again, Poland had no option but to bring in change, and Frankowski and Puchacz replaced Rybus and goal-scorer Linetty.
Lewandowski cut a lonely figure and was hardly allowed to get into the match, thanks to some excellent defending coupled with the lack of support. Poland tried hard, but there was no way Slovakia would let the lead slide.