WARSAW – Midway through the second half, Russia was poised to deal a mortal psychological blow to longtime rival Poland. But Jakub Blaszczykowski scored an emotional equalizer for his country, allowing the co-hosts to claim a 1-1 tie on a day that saw supporters from both teams clash outside Warsaw’s National Stadium.
Russia’s Alan Dzagoev scored in the first half, redirecting Andrei Arshavin’s free kick. But after forcing Russia goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev into several sharp saves, Poland struck back through Blaszczykowski, causing an explosion of cheers from Polish supporters in the 57th minute.
Thanks to this match combined with the Czech Republic’s 2-1 triumph over Greece earlier in the day, Group A remains a wide-open affair. Russia tops the group with four points from two matches, with the Czechs a point behind. The co-hosts are in third with two points, and Greece is last with one point. Poland must win its group finale against the Czechs to advance.
Russia manager Dick Advocaat named an unchanged side from the tournament opener, but Poland made two alterations to its starting lineup. Przemyslaw Tyton deputized in goal for the suspended Wojciech Szczesny, while Dariusz Dudka replaced Maciej Rybus. Tactically, Rafal Murawski was pushed into an attacking midfield role, while Ludovic Obraniak slid out to the left wing.
Given the history of bad blood between the two countries as well as reports of violence outside the stadium, the crowd's intensity was palpable. And it was Poland that threatened first, with Malafeev twice denying shots in the opening minutes, including a beautiful reaction save on Sebastian Boenisch’s seventh-minute header.
The home side went close again four minutes later, but Robert Lewandowski’s volley flew narrowly past the post.
But just as it had against Greece, Poland’s early momentum dissipated, and the visitors began to carve out a territorial edge, with the movement up top among Dzagoev, Aleksandr Kerzhakov and Arshavin beginning to stretch the co-hosts’ defense. Only some desperate defending by Poland’s back line, as well as a lack of precision on some low crosses, kept the visitors from scoring.
Yet for all of Russia’s fluidity from open play, it was through a set piece that it broke on top in the 37th minute. Arshavin’s in-swinging free kick was met by Dzagoev, and his glancing header – or, more accurately, shoulder – easily beat Tyton in the Polish goal. Poland’s response was almost immediate, with Blaszczykowski’s pile driver from 20 yards forcing a smart save from Malafeev.
But for the most part, Russia was in control, as its pressure high up the field was enough to stymie Poland’s attempts to counter.
The home side made another bright start to the half, with Lewandowski twice causing havoc in the box, but Malafeev was on hand both times to deny the Borussia Dortmund striker from close range.
Russia was soon back on the attack but conspired to waste several opportunities to extend its lead. One such exchange saw Arshavin’s pass across the box easily intercepted, and Poland made him pay. A quick counterattack saw Lukasz Piszczek gather the ball on the left wing and feed his club teammate Blaszczykowski, who curled a beautiful left-footed shot past Malafeev to bring the hosts level. It’ll no doubt be No. 1 on most goal-of-the-tournament lists so far.
Neither team backed down in its search for a winner. Tyton made a sharp, low save from the foot of Dzagoev in the 68th minute, while Malafeev had to be alert to save Eugen Polanski’s tight-angled drive a minute later.
But despite some promising openings, neither team was able to deliver the killer blow, with each team gaining a point.
Man of the match: There were plenty of candidates, with Dzagoev netting his third goal of the tournament and Blaszczykowski delivering a clutch strike. But Russia owes its spot atop Group A to the steady and at times incredibly brave goalkeeping of Malafeev, especially early in the match. Without him, nerves would be jangling in the Russian camp ahead of its final group match against Greece.
Final verdict for Poland: The irony is that the point Poland gained in the match did little to alter its fate. With the Czechs’ win over Greece, the co-hosts must win their final group match or suffer the ignominy of exiting the tournament early. A bigger boost, however, will come in the form of the confidence gained at having come back to tie a bitter rival. That ought to serve the Poles well when they face the Czechs in Wroclaw.
Final verdict for Russia: Advocaat likely will consider this an opportunity squandered to clinch the top spot in the group. The play of his front three looked to have done enough to claim an important victory. That said, his side still controls its destiny. A tie would be enough to see the Russians through, although they’ll need to win to maintain their grip on the top spot in the group.
Talking point: The lead-up to Poland’s goal illustrated why Arshavin remains such a frustrating figure. Dynamic throughout the day, his soft pass across the box sparked the co-hosts’ counterattack that led to Blaszczykowski’s goal and prevented Russia from clinching the top spot in Group A. It’s a tendency that Arsenal fans know all too well.