Wojciech Szczesny hasn’t always performed well at major competitions, but Poland’s success in making the World Cup’s round of 16 for the first time since 1986 is largely due to their goalkeeper.
Szczesny was questioned about his mishaps at previous championships on the eve of Poland’s first game in Qatar. His only previous World Cup and three European Championships were marred by a red card, expensive mistakes, and injury.
“I think each tournament has its own history,” replied Szczesny, who has shrugged off those bad memories and become the first ‘keeper since 2002 to save two penalties at the same World Cup.
In a stunning double save in a 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, he first stopped Salem Al-penalty Dawsari’s kick before making an incredible reaction save to save Mohammed Al-Burayk from the rebound.
It’s good for goalkeepers, because we can’t become heroes by scoring goals. At least sometimes we can help the team by making big saves,” said Szczesny.
After those heroics, he claimed he wanted to “face the best,” and in the tense final round of group matches, he got his chance against Lionel Messi and Argentina.
Szczesny dived to his left to block Messi’s penalty kick after being harshly called for elbowing Messi in the face while he was vying for a cross. Messi is a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Despite only scoring twice in three games, it was crucial as Poland edged Mexico out of the group stage on goal differential.
“I was fortunate twice this competition,” Szczesny told RAI Sport. “It’s a great moment in the career of a player, the World Cup is the maximum and this is special.
“There’s a bit of work that goes into it, too, but in order to save a Messi penalty, you need some luck as well.”
MBAPPE NEXT UP
When Poland takes on reigning champions France on Sunday, the 1.96m (6ft 5in) Szczesny, who has fully recovered from the injuries that limited him early this season with Juventus, is expected to face yet another enormous task.
After Didier Deschamps heavily varied his starting lineup for the 1-0 loss to Tunisia, Kylian Mbappe leads a deadly French attack that should be well rested.
Szczesny, who claims that this will be his final World Cup, still finds humor in things, and he wants to keep the adventure going as long as possible.
“They are big favourites, they are one of the best teams in the world, but we will do our best to try and pass this round. The key to stop Mbappe? Myself?” he said.
The former Arsenal goalkeeper has experienced a rollercoaster of a career, but at 32, he seems to be at the pinnacle of his abilities.
“I asked him how he was getting older and better at the same time,” said back-up keeper Kamil Grabara, who hopes Poland’s success will prompt Szczesny to reconsider his international future.
Szczesny didn’t play again at Euro 2016 after suffering an injury in the opening group game of Euro 2012, when Poland served as co-hosts.
At the 2018 World Cup, Poland was once again penalized for an ill-advised charge out of their goal, and he put in an own goal as the Poles lost to Slovakia to begin their Euro 2020 campaign.
But if Szczesny leads Poland far into the draw, those difficult moments will be forgotten, and he is determined to enjoy every second of it. He joked with Messi during the VAR review before Poland’s penalty.
“We spoke before the penalty, and I told him I would bet him 100 euros that he (the referee) wasn’t going to give it,” said Szczesny. “So I’ve lost a bet against Messi.
“I don’t know if that’s allowed at the World Cup – I’m probably going to get banned for it! But I don’t care right now.
“I’m not going to pay him either – he doesn’t care about 100 euros, I think he has enough.”
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