DOHA: It hasn't always been this way for Wojciech Szczesny at major tournaments, but Poland largely have their goalkeeper to thank after reaching the World Cup last 16 for the first time since 1986.
On the eve of Poland's opening game in Qatar, Szczesny was asked about his misadventures at past finals -- his only previous World Cup and three European Championships were marred by a red card, costly blunders 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.
First he kept out Salem Al-Dawsari's spot-kick in a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia as part of a breathtaking double save, producing a sensational reflex stop to deny 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.
But he said he wanted to “face the best” after those heroics and he got his chance against Lionel Messi and Argentina in a nerve-jangling final round of group games.
Harshly penalised for catching Messi in the face while challenging for a cross, Szczesny plunged to his left to palm away the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner's effort from the spot.
It proved crucial as Poland squeezed through the group stage ahead of Mexico on goal difference despite scoring just twice in three matches.
“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 -
Fully recovered from injuries that hampered him early this season with Juventus, the 1.96m (6ft 5in) Szczesny figures to have another huge job on his hands when Poland play defending champions France on Sunday.
Kylian Mbappe heads a fearsome French attack that should be well rested after coach Didier Deschamps heavily rotated his line-up for the 1-0 loss to Tunisia.
While Szczesny, who says this will be his final World Cup, hasn't lost his sense of humour, he also hopes to prolong the adventure.
“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.
It's been a rollercoaster ride for the former Arsenal stopper, who at 32 appears to be at the peak of his powers.
“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.
After being sent off in the Euro 2012 opener when Poland were co-hosts, Szczesny played no further part at Euro 2016 after an injury in the first group game.
An ill-advised charge out of his goal again cost Poland at the 2018 World Cup and he scored an own goal as the Poles kicked off their Euro 2020 campaign with a loss to Slovakia.
But those tough moments will fade from memory if Szczesny carries Poland deep into the draw, and he is determined to enjoy every bit of it -- joking with Messi during the VAR review before his 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.”-AFP