With history in its sight, Saudi Arabia stepped into the Education City Stadium field with an extra spring in its step. But a missed penalty from Salem Al-Dawsari, the scorer of a Messi-esque goal in front of Messi the other afternoon, left it disappointed after a 2-0 loss to Poland.
A goal down and with a single first-half minute (after 10 minutes were) to play, Al-Dawsari, unfortunately, was up against one of the best spot-kick stoppers in the game. Wojciech Szczesny dived to his right to save his 25th penalty by keeping the Saudi No. 10’s tame effort away. And he was quickly back on his feet to get a fingertip to Mohammed Al-Burayk’s crisply hit volley off the rebound.
The penalty came after a VAR check, Krystian Bielik guilty of a light touch on Saleh Al Shehri’s trailing ankle inside the box.
The Polish goal, despite the relentless Saudi Arabian pressure, came in the 40th minute. An alive and agile Piotr Zielinski was there in the six-yard box to score the first goal of the game as Robert Lewandowski, deterred by the ‘keeper first, chased to keep the ball in play.
The Saudis, till then, had enough chances but the goals never came. In the 13th minute, Mohamed Kanno played a ball to the right and as the cut back came to him a stinging flier followed, grazing Szczesny’s fingers to safely sail into the stands.
A sustained spell of possession of patient building around the box brought in a cross from Saud Abdulhamid and Kamil Glik had to rise high to thwart the lurking danger.
Poland came close in the 26th minute as Bielik’s towering header from a Zielinski corner was bravely butted out from the goal-line by Al-Shehri.
Al-Dawsari had a fortuitous chance to redeem himself when the game restarted, but the captain failed to keep his shot down as a lucky ball fell to him from a penalty box scuffle. As the Saudis pressed forward, more in hope and desperation, the Poles were happy to exploit the open spaces. Arkadiusz Milik first hit the crossbar in the 62nd minute and Lewandoski, eager to score a first Cup goal, managed a weak contact with the calf of his right leg. The ball eluded an alarmed Mohammed Al-Owais but the post, again, was there to save him.
The Barcelona striker finally had his first Cup goal in the 82nd minute as defender Abdulelah Al-Malki made a hash of an innocuous ball with the predator lurking. The ball was stolen and the goal scored and the Saudi dream of making it to the knockouts was not yet fulfilled.
The result: Group C: Poland 2 (Zielinski 39, Lewandowski 82) bt Saudi Arabia 0.