Poland spent time preparing for a penalty shootout — and it showed.
Pinned back in its own half for long spells by Switzerland as fatigue appeared to take its toll in extra time, Poland focused on the defensive virtues that have served it so well at Euro 2016.
The strategy paid off, and Poland reached the quarterfinals of the European Championship for the first time, after it converted all its kicks from the penalty spot to beat Switzerland 5-4 in the shootout.
Following a 1-1 draw on Saturday that Switzerland had dominated for long periods, Grzegorz Krychowiak stepped up to slot home the winning penalty into the top left corner of the Swiss net.
Krychowiak’s winning penalty at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in the southern French city of Saint-Etienne capped an impressive display by Poland’s players during the shootout. The only player to miss was Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka — Arsenal’s new signing — who misfired his shot past the left post.
“Preparing for this match, we tried to improve our penalties, and we knew they’d be taken in the best possible way,” Poland coach Adam Nawalka said through a translator after steering his team to its best performance in a major competition since the 1982 World Cup in Spain when it made the semi-finals.
“We knew the five players to take them. Emotions were running high so we had to check at the end of extra time if the players still wanted to take them. Everyone had to confirm, and all five of them did.”
Poland’s opponent in the quarterfinals will be Portugal after its late 1-0 victory over Croatia in the northern town of Lens.
Switzerland will be ruing a series of misses in a match that would have secured its first victory in a knockout match at a major tournament since the 1938 World Cup. The team certainly looked like it had more energy — after all it had two extra rest days to recover from the group stage than the Poles.
Poland started the brighter though and should have taken the lead in the first minute when Arkadiusz Milik missed what is in effect an open goal from 20 metres following a mix-up in the Swiss defense.
Poland eventually took the lead in the 39th minute when Jakub Blaszczykowski scored his second goal of the tournament with a low shot that went between the legs of Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer.
As the second half progressed, Switzerland was certainly the more attack-minded side and Haris Seferovic struck the bar.
Its pressure paid off in the 82nd minute when Xherdan Shaqiri scored perhaps the best goal of the tournament so far. Allowed far too much space on the edge of the area, he jumped with his back to the net before firing a left-footed volley inside the post.
“We would have deserved to advance,” Shaqiri said. “It was a very important goal, because it pushed the team more. It was beautiful, but in the end, we are out and I’m disappointed,”
Shaqiri was a constant threat to Poland with his speed of touch and play in extra time. Switzerland substitute Eren Derdiyok had two good chances to win the match but Lukasz Fabianski kept his team in the game.
Those saves were crucial as they set up the shootout that Poland had clearly prepared for.
“In general we are very happy as we did something we had not done before,” Blaszczykowski said. “This is a marvellous feeling. Did I know that whenever I’ve scored Poland have never lost? It is nice. Let’s hope it will stay like this all the way through to the final.”
One potential concern for Poland heading into its next match is the goal drought that’s afflicting its star player Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern Munich striker, who was top scorer in qualifying, has yet to score in the four games he’s played at the tournament, aside from his cool finish in the penalty shootout.
Nawalka though was fulsome in his praise of Lewandowski.
“He is doing phenomenal work for this team,” Nawalka said. “He’s an incredibly important player for this side. He helps the team to be better, stronger. He helps them to be better players. I’m confident the break will happen in the next match, and let our opponents be afraid from there.”