Poland’s first-ever victory in the European Championship didn’t come easily, and for large periods of the first half it looked as if it might not come at all. With Northern Ireland’s ultra-defensive tactics looking to negate the threat of both Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik, it could have been a frustrating afternoon for the Bialo-Czerwoni.
But if Lewandowski isn’t given the chance to score, it’s his job to create the space for those behind him to take aim; and just six minutes into the second half, that’s exactly what happened. As Jakub Blaszczykowski advanced on the right, Lewandowski drifted to the left to allow space for Milik to receive the ball and use his trusted left foot to give the Poles a 1-0 victory.
While performance levels varied, there wasn’t a single Pole on the field who could be disappointed with his showing. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny didn’t have much to do, but when called upon he gave everything for the cause. Blaszczykowski turned in his best performance in months with the White Eagle on his chest, while the centre-midfield pair of Grzegorz Krychowiak and Krzysztof Maczynski provided a solid base for Poland’s incessant attacks.
The biggest praise, though, must be heaped on 19-year-old Bartosz Kapustka. The Cracovia winger stepped from the relative obscurity of the Polish Ekstraklasa to already become one of the rising stars of the tournament.
With three points, just one more will likely be enough to see Adam Nawalka’s side emerge from the group stage in a major tournament for the first time in 30 years. It would also give them a huge boost ahead of Thursday’s game against neighbours and world champions Germany.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Wojciech Szczesny, 7 — Little to do in the first half, but kept concentration when called upon, even channeling his inner Harald Schumacher on Lukasz Piszczek in order to claim one high ball.
DF Lukasz Piszczek, 7 — Back to the Piszczek that Poland knows best: getting into forward positions and forming a solid partnership with Blaszczykowski.
DF Kamil Glik, 7 — Strong and commanding, what has come to be expected of the Torino skipper. Didn’t allow Kyle Lafferty a sniff of goal.
DF Michal Pazdan, 7 — After his pre-tournament performance against Netherlands, there were doubts over whether Pazdan was the right man to partner Glik at the back. Comfortable against the few Northern Irish attacks, but his real test will come in the next two games.
DF Artur Jedrzejczyk, 7 — Despite being played out of position, natural right-back Jedrzejczyk got forward and linked up well with the midfield, even if his left-footed deliveries left a lot to be desired.
MF Jakub Blaszczykowski, 8 — He may no longer be captain, but “Kuba” is still one of the leaders of this team. His vision to assist Milik for the goal was particularly impressive.
MF Grzegorz Krychowiak, 7 — Not a peak performance from Krychowiak, but his bite in the middle of the park was much-needed for the Poles. Should only get better as the tournament progresses.
MF Krzysztof Maczynski, 7 — The Wisla Krakow man helped Krychowiak to soak up the ball in front of the back four, and managed to also get into attacking positions on occasion. Extremely comfortable, and not deserving of the stick received from some fans back home.
MF Bartosz Kapustka, 9 — The Cracovia winger was arguably an unknown quantity coming into the game. Not so much now. Social media was set ablaze by the 19-year-old, garnering well-deserved praise from all corners thanks to his technical ability and lack of fear. A performance described by Krychowiak as “phenomenal”.
FW Arkadiusz Milik, 8 — Missed one good chance and failed to even connect with another, but his well-taken goal will go down in Polish football history. His club Ajax will also be happy; it probably bumped a few million euros onto his price tag too.
FW Robert Lewandowski, 7 — Not the showing expected by most, but was always going to find it tough against a defence intent on shutting him out. A victim of his own successes for Poland. Games against weaker rivals should theoretically suit him, but without a Thomas Muller-type figure alongside him, is forced to make space for others — and he does it well.
MF Tomasz Jodlowiec, NR — Nawalka’s first sub in the 78th minute, and the Legia Warsaw player had little time to make an impact.
MF Kamil Grosicki, NR — After picking up an injury just before the tournament, his 10-minute appearance was a bit of a surprise. Nice to see he is ready for the Germany game, but may struggle to get back in the side ahead of Kapustka.
MF Slawomir Peszko, NR — After missing the 2012 competition after an alleged altercation with a taxi driver, the ex-Wolves winger will be glad to have made an appearance on the European stage — even if just for the final two minutes.
Ryan Hubbard is ESPN FC’s Poland blogger at Euro 2016. Twitter: @Ryan_Hubbard