Poland advanced to the knockout stage of the European Championship for the first time when Jakub Blaszczykowski’s second-half goal secured a 1-0 win over already-eliminated Ukraine on Tuesday, cementing second place in Group C and a round-of-16 meeting with Switzerland.
Poland had started strongly but appeared to be settling for the draw that would also have guaranteed their progress until Blaszczykowski struck nine minutes after joining the fray as a half-time substitute.
The result left them on seven points, second in the group on goal difference to Germany, who beat Northern Ireland 1-0, and left their huge following in the Stade Velodrome celebrating long and loud after the humiliation of four years ago when they finished bottom of their group when co-hosting the tournament.
Poland could and should have been out of sight in the first five minutes as Arkadiusz Milik shot straight at goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov when through and Robert Lewandowski, the leading scorer from any country in the qualifying competition but without a goal in his previous five internationals, side-footed wide with the goal gaping.
Ukraine looked shell-shocked but, unlike in their previous two 2-0 defeats by Germany and Northern Ireland, they settled down, got stuck in and should have scored themselves when Andriy Yarmolenko bore down on Lukasz Fabianski but then blazed wide.
A goalless draw would have been enough for Poland whatever happened in the other game but their grip on second place was strengthened when Germany went ahead against Northern Ireland after half an hour and some of the intensity went out of their approach.
But they looked fired up again after the break and an incisive inside pass by Milik sent Blaszczykowski through and the substitute beat a defender before hooking the ball firmly beyond Andriy Pyatov.
Bartosz Kapustka should have doubled the lead two minutes later but shot wide from close range.
Poland then packed their midfield and sat deep and although it allowed Ukraine to have more possession, unleash a few pot-shots and force some desperate last-ditch Polish tackles, they never really threatened an equaliser.
So, Ukraine go home without a point or a goal and are now without a coach after Mykhailo Fomenko had announced before the game that he would step down.
Poland, however, march on into uncharted waters and will have every belief that they can beat a Swiss team who hardly tore up any trees in finishing second to France in Group A.