At the final whistle Poland’s players headed towards the stands and celebrated renewed opportunity while Spain departed to whistles, wondering how they had failed to win again and why this keeps happening to them. Even Álvaro Morata scoring the opening goal he so badly needed was not enough, a tense evening instead finishing with a draw that leaves la selección edgy and this group wide open. Robert Lewandowski scoring a second-half equaliser, Gerard Moreno hitting a penalty against the post and Wojciech Szczesny making a desperate late save summed it all up. That was how close it had been, how close it is in Group E.
After all the whistles and criticisms, the finger of blame pointing his way, Morata gave Spain the lead here, but his redemption would remain incomplete because while he scored one, he didn’t score two, three, or more when he might have done. No one else did either, nerves frayed as Spain again discovered there was no way through and Poland resisted the late pressure to take these two teams, Slovakia and Sweden into next Wednesday when anything can happen.
“We’re absolutely gutted,” Spain captain Jordi Alba admitted afterwards, the emotion very different to those felt early in the evening when Morata had given Spain the lead. That had seemed to deliver vindication for him and for the manager who stood by him, the reaction showing how much of a release his goal was – even if he was forced to wait for it.
Twenty-four minutes had gone when Morata turned Moreno’s ball past Szczesny only to see the flag was up, but he was not to be denied. Not this time, anyway. The man who had 12 goals ruled out for offside last season, this time found VAR on his side and set running towards Luis Enrique. Morata embraced his manager, and then continued towards the subs and the staff on the bench behind, including Joaquín Valdés, the selección’s psychologist.
Poland had surprised Spain with a bright, dynamic start which included a big penalty shout inside two minutes – the challenge on Piotr Zielinski had been from Morata– and Mateusz Klich striking a twenty-five-yard shot that clipped the top of the net. But Spain had taken control and by half time there was a pattern that had been seen before, 77% of the ball theirs. They might have extended their lead too, Moreno missing at the near post from Alba’s delivery.
That said, there was a vulnerability about Spain every time Poland broke and Paulo Sousa rightly noted that his team should have scored. Lewandowski clipped in a cross from which Karol Swiderksi couldn’t quite guide a volley past Unai Simón, and then could have levelled this himself. Swiderski struck against the post from outside the area and the rebound came to Lewandowski five yards out but Simón reached out a hand to stop his shot. It was a good save and a bad miss, yet the Bayern striker made up for it ten minutes into the second half, outmanoeuvring Aymeric Laporte and leaping to head Kamil Jowiak’s cross into the net.
Within two minutes, Spain were given the chance to lead again, the disappointment eradicated almost immediately, when Danielle Orsato headed to the VAR screen to watch a replay of Jakub Morder treading on Moreno’s foot. Moreno’s penalty hit the post, the rebound coming at Morata fast, who could only shoot wide with the keeper down and the goal open. Soon after, Morata struck past the far post. For Spain, a familiar feeling started to sneak back in again. For Poland, there was something to hold on to – a first point to kept them in this competition. There might even have been more too; Spain certainly could feel the threat when Poland were able to break.
More often, traffic headed the other way, pressure building. Poland were occasionally ragged but determined to resist. Szczesny almost dropped the ball at the feet of Ferran Torres and then Morata’s attempt to turn inside the six-yard box provoked a scramble that ended with a wild, relieved hack clear. It was desperate, for everyone, Torres finally dropping the ball at the feet of Morata five yards out. This was his moment, again. But as he swung, Szczesny flew, somehow saving the day.