KEIR RADNEDGE in WARSAW
— Every now and again sport throws up a match whose significance has very little to do with the event context. United States v Iran at the 1998 World Cup was one such meeting; Poland’s 1-1 draw with Russia here at the 2012 European Championship was another in that exclusive sequence.
History set the backdrop: the Russian fans’ march raised the temperature and the national anthems pushed the degrees further – especially as a massive ‘This Is Russia’ banner cascaded across one entire corner of Poland’s new National Stadium.
As if the match were not edged enough with drama: Poland needed to win to maintain hopes of progressing beyond the group phase while a Russian victory would ensure Dick Advocaat’s men a slot in the quarter-finals with a game to spare.
Poland had begun their opening match against Greece at high speed and sought a repeat. A right wing free kick from Ludovic Obraniak created one moment of panic in the Russian defence: a left wing corner which offered a headed half-chance to the tumbling Sebastian Boenisch another. Robert Lewandowski followed up with a 25m shot on the turn which rocketed over Vyacheslav Malafeev’s crossbar.
Control hung in the balance. Poland looked to Lewandowski repeatedly but he lacked support. Not so Russia. The integrated movement of midfielders and forwards was slippery smooth with Andrei Arshavin always probing. He set up the breakthrough, too, with a beautifully-flighted left-wing free kick which Alan Dzagoev, running in unnoticed from outside the penalty box, deflected beyond Przemyslav Tyton.
Leading at half-time, Russia remained apparently comfortable at the start of the second. They knew that the longer the game went on the more desperate the Poles would become in pursuit of an equaliser and the more gaps they would leave for Dzagoev, Kerzhakov and Co to exploit.
While they waited, however, they forgot the here and now. Lukasz Piszek skipped up the right wing and skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski not only took the ball forward but pushed it inside and unleashed a left-foot rocket of a shot which soared beyond Malafeev and up into the top corner. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk celebrated as wildly as the mass of Polish fans.
The Russians looked stunned. Their shape disintegrated. Eugen Polanski burst through on the right and had a shot blocked. Every tiem the Russians had possession the crowd whistled and jeered. Poland were still not playing particularly well but they were earning top marks for effort.
Their fans also, unlike in the Greece game, stayed with them – at one stage rising en masse, flags outstretched, to sing the national anthem. It was a stirring moment and clearly the Russian players felt the pressure weighing them down.
The draw was probably a relief for everyone – including the 450 riot police who had marched out, provocatively, to line up in front of the massed Russian fans in the Vistula bridge end.
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