Poles capitalize on Russia ban to book World Cup spot
Polish hitman Robert Lewandowski was on target as his nation sealed a spot at the 2022 World Cup with victory over Sweden, after Russia were barred from contesting the playoffs to reach Qatar.
Second-half strikes from Lewandowski and midfielder Piotr Zielinski earned Poland a first win over Sweden in a competitive fixture since 1974.
The Poles broke the deadlock at a raucous Silesian Stadium in Chorzow when Bayern Munich frontman Lewandowski struck from the penalty spot four minutes into the second half after Grzegorz Krychowiak – who recently departed Russian club Krasnodar – was fouled in the box. The finish was the 75th for the prolific Lewandowski in national team colors.
Napoli man Zielinski then capitalized on sloppy defending in the 72nd minute when he engineered a one-on-one with Sweden goalkeeper Robin Olsen before calmly slotting home.
Poland were indebted to stopper Wojciech Szczesny for some strong saves while Sweden boss Janne Andersson left it until the 79th minute to introduce veteran record goalscorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic, by which point a pulsating game had already slipped away.
Poland players were jubilant at the final whistle, celebrating on the pitch and donning T-shirts with the message that they were Qatar-bound.
Tuesday night’s contest took place after the Poles were handed a bye into the playoff final, avoiding a tie with Russia after they were banned by FIFA in the wake of the military operation in Ukraine.
Russia and Poland had been due to meet in Moscow on March 24, with the winners facing the victors from the playoff semifinal between Sweden and the Czech Republic – which the Swedes edged 1-0 in extra-time.
But each of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic had declared that they would refuse to play Russia before FIFA and UEFA imposed a formal ban on February 28.
The Russian Football Union has since unsuccessfully appealed a suspension of the ban with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), paving the way for the playoffs to go ahead without Russia.
However, a final CAS verdict on the issue is still pending, with no hearing date being fixed.
That has left Russia with a glimmer of hope that the ban can somehow be overturned, although that outcome would seem unlikely given that the playoffs have been completed and any legal victory would require them to be replayed before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar in November.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s World Cup playoff semifinal against Scotland has been postponed until at least June, with the winners of that match meeting Wales for a chance to reach Qatar.
In the absence of competitive fixtures during the international break, the Russian team held a training camp in Moscow.
Manager Valeri Karpin recently said it would be a “triumph of common sense” if the ban was reversed and his team had the chance to qualify for Qatar.
The draw for the World Cup groups takes place in Qatar on Friday, with Poland entering Pot Three of the seedings.