Milan Skriniar’s superb second-half strike gave Slovakia a surprise win to start their Euro 2020 campaign as they overcame 10-man Poland 2-1 in St Petersburg.
Seen as the likely whipping boys of Group E, Slovakia were out of the blocks significantly quicker than Poland and took the lead thanks to great work from Robert Mak that led to Wojciech Szczesny becoming the first goalkeeper to score an own goal at a European Championship.
Poland levelled soon after half-time through Karol Linetty, but the game turned on the dismissal of midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Slovakia made the most of their extra man as Skriniar, who did an excellent job keeping Robert Lewandowski quiet, had a decisive impact at the other end with a fine 69th-minute effort.
Ondrej Duda hit the side-netting with the game’s first half-chance before Mak produced the opener out of nothing with a wonderful individual run.
With the ball on the left-hand side with Kamil Jozwiak and Bartosz Bereszynski for company, Mak nutmegged the latter and surged into the box before seeing his shot bounce off the post and then Szczesny and into the net.
Juraj Kucka bent an effort narrowly over the bar from long range as Slovakia continued to look the more composed in front of goal, with Krychowiak’s ambitious effort the best Poland could muster in the first half.
But just 32 seconds into the second half Poland were level, Linetty netting the second-fastest second-half goal scored in a European Championship game (Marcel Coras – 21 seconds for Romania v Germany in 1984) as his scuffed finish beat Martin Dubravka following impressive link-up play between Mateusz Klich and Maciej Rybus.
Poland dictated the contest thereafter until the 62nd minute when Krychowiak saw red, receiving a second yellow after pulling back Jakub Hromada.
And the 10 men were subsequently punished in style by Skriniar, who controlled Marek Hamsik’s flick-on from Mak’s corner before producing an unerring finish into the bottom-left corner that sealed Slovakia’s second European Championship win as an independent nation.
What does it mean? Below-par Poland left playing catch-up
With Spain having been dealt with significant coronavirus issues ahead of the tournament, Poland might have fancied their chances to win a relatively open group.
But they rarely had control of a game they were expected to win and ceded any measure of command in the second half with Krychowiak’s red card, which means the midfielder will miss a crucial game with Spain in Seville on Saturday.
Skriniar vital at both ends
There were several impressive performances for Slovakia. Mak was instrumental, Duda excelled at keeping possession in the Poland half and Jakub Hromada consistently broke up play in midfield.
But the standout was Skriniar, the Inter defender made a game-high 10 clearances to go with three interceptions and his winner was his third goal in his last four games for Slovakia. He had failed to score in any of his first 37 matches for his country.
Lewandowski held in check
Much of the pre-game focus was on arguably the most feared striker in world football after a season that saw Lewandowski score a record-breaking 41 Bundesliga goals for Bayern Munich.
However, Lewandowski had fewer touches than any Poland outfield player in the first half (22) and finished with just 39. None of his five shots hit the target and he has not scored at a major tournament since Euro 2016, having had over 30 efforts at goal in that time.
– Only one of the nine meetings between Poland and Slovakia in all competitions has ended in a draw (3 wins for Poland, 5 for Slovakia).
– Poland have failed to win their opening game at nine of the last 10 major tournaments they have appeared in (European Championship + World Cup – D4 L5), with the only exception being a 1-0 victory against Northern Ireland at EURO 2016.
– Poland became just the second side to score an own-goal (Szczesny) and have a player sent off (Krychowiak) in a single European Championship game after Czechoslovakia versus Netherlands in 1976.
Poland face the challenge of springing a surprise of their own against the two-time European champions, while Slovakia can head into their meeting with Sweden on Friday with great confidence.
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