Poland 2-1 Republic of Ireland
Robert Lewandowski proved the Polish hero once again as Ireland ended their Euro 2016 Group D in defeat, losing 2-1 to Poland at the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw.
The Bayern Munich hit-man, who has scored 15 goals in his last six games for both club and country, powered home a 42nd-minute header to secure the victory and send Poland through to next summer’s championships in France.
The home side had opened the scoring in the 13th minute with a well-hit strike from Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Although Ireland hit back immediately through a Jonathan Walters penalty, Martin O’Neill’s side couldn’t find another as they were outplayed and out thought on a freezing night in the Polish capital.
With so much at stake, the opening exchanges proved a bit frantic with neither team able to settle on the ball.
The ball, in fact, with its snazzy yellow and orange design had the look of a fireball in motion and it certainly proved too hot for many players on the pitch to control.
It was the home side who were showing the real initiative, roared on by a vocal and hostile capacity crowd at the Stadion Narodowy.
The game burst into life in the 13th minute after some neat Polish play down the right flank as the ball was worked into the box.
Ireland keeper Darren Randolph was called in to action for the first time as Kamil Grosicki’s low effort was turned around the post for a corner.
The opening goal came from the resulting set-piece as the ball was cut back to the edge of the box, where the always-composed Krychowiak was waiting to calmly stroke the ball low into the corner.
But Ireland hit back straight away as they went on the immediate attack from the kick-off.
Central defender Michal Pazdan attempted to clear but Long got his head to the ball just ahead of him and the referee had no hesitation in awarding the penalty.
There was a bit of a dispute as to whether Long was inside or outside the box, but Walters was not concerned and smashed the penalty low and hard into the bottom right corner.
Moments later, in what was five minutes of real madness, Poland had the ball in the back of the net once more as Krzysztof Mączyński drilled the ball home after some fine Lewandowski play, but the linesman flagged early and the goal was disallowed.
After the madness came the calm. After such a frantic opening 15 minutes, the next quarter of an hour gave us little to talk about apart from a soft John O’Shea yellow card, a Lewandowski shot bravely blocked by Glenn Whelan and an Ireland corner following Seamus Coleman’s first real foray forward.
Yet still it was the home side who were looking the more likely to threaten.
And then in the 36th minute, they worked a good move from the right as Piszczek’s cross-field ball found Grosicki in space down the left.
The wide man cut inside and attempted to curl the ball into the top corner but his shot was poor and flew over the bar.
But Poland were getting on top and after another effort flew wide, the home side were finally rewarded for their pressure and possession.
And it was that man Lewandowski.
Pawell Olkowski did well to work the ball into the box and as Poland got men up in support, Ireland’s defenders were dragged out of position.
Lewandowski arrived late into the box and the deft chip back proved pin point, allowing the striker to power the ball home from ten yards with a fine header to give Poland the break.
Ten minutes of second-half inactivity led to the first change, but it was one forced upon the manager as Shane Long was stretchered off following a heavy challenge by Kamil Glik.
Robbie Keane arrived into the fray, followed by Aiden McGeady two minutes later, as Ireland went into a much more attacking formation.
And while it yielded little in terms of chances, there was certainly a bit of momentum as Ireland enjoyed more possession in the opposition half, which almost led to a great chance for Coleman at the back post.
The move started out right with Hendrick rolling Walters in down the left and his long cross to the back post allowed McGeady clip the ball back into space.
Keane looked to be setting himself for a bicycle kick but must have heard the call from Coleman. However, the Everton defender’s touch was heavy and Poland cleared.
Then all of Ireland’s momentum was almost undone in the 64th minute as Poland countered, and it took a fine Randolph save to prevent Grosicki from securing the victory.
Ireland remained in the contest, knowing that one goal would swing the tie back in their favour, but despite all the time spent in the opponents’ half, there was little creativity, with hopeful balls mopped up by the many white jerseys now behind the ball.
Poland almost got in again in the 72nd minute as Lewandowski showcased his exquisite touch, taking the ball in his stride into a goalscoring opportunity, but Coleman got across to divert the danger.
Eventually, Wes Hoolahan was sent into the attack, which led to some immediate good Irish play. Yet again, however, the final ball was just lacking as Keane made space in the box but the cross just proved too high.
Ireland’s best chance came in the 81st minute as bodies piled forward for a corner.
O’Shea’s near-post flick could not be diverted in but the resulting cross found the head of Richard Keogh, who crashed a fine header on target.
But Fabiański got strong hands on the ball and Poland scrambled clear.
Martin O’Neill’s side huffed and puffed for the remaining minutes, plus another five additional ones, but no clear-cut opportunities presented themselves.
O’Shea’s early yellow card came back to haunt him in the dying moments when he was forced to take Lewandowski down and the Ireland captain received his marching orders.
The final whistle inevitably arrived moments later to send the ecstatic home support into a frenzy as the home side march on to the finals in France.
For Ireland, yet again, the play-offs will need to be negotiated.
Poland: Lukasz Fabiański; Lukasz Piszczek, Kamil Glik, Michał Pazdan, Jakub Wawrzyniak; Grzegorz Krychowiak, Karol Linetty, Krzysztof Mączyński (Lukasz Szukała 78), Pawell Olkowski (Jakub Błaszczykowski 63), Kamil Grosicki (Sławomir Peszko 85); Robert Lewandowski (capt).
Republic of Ireland: Darren Randolph; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea (capt), Richard Keogh, Robbie Brady; Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Glenn Whelan (Aiden McGeady 58), James McClean (Wes Hoolahan 73); Jonathan Walters, Shane Long (Robbie Keane 55).
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).