AL RAYYAN, Qatar: Fresh from writing their names into footballing folklore after a fairytale win over Argentina, Saudi Arabia were handed a harsh reality check at the World Cup on Saturday (Nov 26) after losing 2-0 to Poland.
In a game where they were cavalier but not clinical, the Green Falcons’ wings were clipped by goals from Piotr Zielinski and Robert Lewandowski.
The Poles are now top of Group C with four points, while the Saudis are second with three. Mexico will face Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the day’s last match.
The result sets up Group C for a tantalising finish, with Saudi Arabia up against Mexico in their final group game on Wednesday, and Poland meeting Argentina.
Buoyed by a sea of green in the stands, the Saudis showed early intent against a side 25 places ahead in the world rankings, with a speculative shot from Mohammed Alburayk deflected over.
Their opponents had drawn 0-0 with Mexico in their opening game after star striker Lewandowski had a penalty saved by Guillermo Ochoa, and on Saturday they struggled to get a grip on the game early on.
It was Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny who was forced into an acrobatic save minutes later to deny Mohamed Kanno an opener.
The Poles continued to look rattled, and picked up three yellow cards in quick succession.
Yet they almost had their first goal of the tournament in the 26th minute as a thumping Krystian Bielik header from a corner was blocked by a Saudi defender.
The Saudi supporters continued to urge their team on, roaring every successful tackle, cheering every completed pass and jeering every Polish touch.
But they were silenced in the 39th minute after Zielinski smashed home from a Lewandowski cutback.
The Saudis’ best chance to grab an equaliser came just before the half after Saleh Alshehri was deemed to have been caught in the box.
The penalty looked harsh on Poland, but they were bailed out by Szczesny who pulled off a remarkable double save - first from Salem Aldawsari’s penalty and then from Alburayk’s follow-up.
The Saudis continued to press in the second half, but Szczesny would thwart them again as the ball pinballed in the box and was eventually prodded straight at him.
Momentum continued to build in the Saudis’ favour as they swarmed forward minutes later, but Feras Albrikan fired over after brilliant build-up play.
Poland was by no means out of this one, and an Arkadiusz Milik header crashed off the crossbar. Soon, it was Lewandowski’s turn to be denied by mere inches as his flick rebounded off the post.
Then came the killer blow in the 82nd minute as Lewandowski seized on a defensive mistake to keep his cool and slot past Mohammed Al-Owais for his first ever World Cup goal.
This time, unlike the last, no Herve Renard team talk would be enough to rescue Saudi Arabia from the clutches of defeat.