KAZAN, Russia – Football can sometimes be very cruel. As Adam Nawalka faced a furious Polish media after his side’s elimination from the World Cup, the chants of celebrating Colombia fans could clearly be heard outside the press-conference room. The contrast was painful. Nawalka, blinking behind his round glasses, did his best to mount a defense, but the fact is that Poland, as it so often does at major tournaments, has woefully underperformed at this World Cup. Colombia, meanwhile, when the pressure was really on, produced probably its best performance since Brazil in 2014, in winning 3-0 at Kazan Arena to greatly improve its hopes of advancement.
It’s easy to forget how impressive Poland was in qualifying, winning eight of its 10 games while Robert Lewandowski finished as the leading scorer in UEFA. The fear expressed before the tournament, though, was that the side had peaked a year too early, and nothing that has happened in Russia has suggested that concern was not justified.
Lewandowski has seemed oddly out of sorts for a couple of months, making little impression either for Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal or for Poland here. Kamil Glik has not been as good for Monaco this season as he was last and, anyway, was restricted by an injury and reduced to a late substitute appearance here. Grzegorz Krychowiak has struggled for form since leaving Sevilla. Age seems to have caught up with Jakub Blaszczykowski, whose Dortmund-formed partnership on the right with Lukasz Piszczek was so important in qualifying. The right winger was forced off through injury in the defeat to Senegal but was left out here despite being fit.
That was part of Nawalka’s decision to switch to a back three, something he had trialled in the pre-tournament friendly defeat to Nigeria, but which marked a distinct change from qualifying, almost as though he had accepted that side was over. Here it seemed a baffling decision, because it exposed the left wingback Maciej Rybus to Juan Cuadrado, who again and again attacked the space behind him. Nawalka insisted gamely that Poland had simply been beaten by a better side, and perhaps that was true, but it was also true that Poland was better in qualifying.
For Nawalka's counterpart, Jose Pekerman, by contrast, there was vindication. The 68-year-old has become increasingly reclusive since the last World Cup, and his team selection for the opening game against Japan was frankly bizarre–even allowing for the fact that James Rodriguez was restricted by a calf injury to playing only half an hour. Why were Johan Mojica, Jefferson Lerma, and Jose Izquierdo selected when they hadn’t played in any of the qualifiers? Why were Oscar Murillo and Davinson Sanchez paired at the back for only the second time? Why, with Colombia having been down to 10 men since the third minute and the score at 1-1, did Pekerman throw on an additional forward?
Pekerman admitted he had made mistakes. Here he did not. In the past he had always resisted pairing James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero, two No. 10s, albeit of very different styles, but when he did, it worked. Poland simply couldn’t live with their craft, allied to the pace of Cuadrado and the forward power of Radamel Falcao.
“More than once we felt that combination could be a good one,” said Pekerman. “They are two players with extraordinary talent. Tonight they contributed these great talents and played in a very complementary fashion.”
Quintero, in truth, does not look much like a modern footballer. He has completed 90 minutes only twice this year, playing for River Plate, where he has been loaned by Porto, which has seemingly desired of him ever being fit enough. Here he managed only 73 minutes, but in that spell he created the opening for the first goal with a clever reverse pass to James, whose cross was nodded in by Yerry Mina. He then laid on the second for Falcao, the 32-year-old’s first World Cup goal.
“That was one of the greatest joys we received tonight,” said Pekerman. “He is a symbol of national team and a symbol of Colombian football. It was important for this match and for future matches.”
James then set up the third for Cuadrado with a delicious angled pass. But perhaps more even than James, Quintero or Falcao, this was about Carlos Sanchez, who was sent off in Colombia’s opening defeat to Japan. Pekerman would not confirm that the player had received death threats amid reports that he had, but he made it clear Sanchez had been distressed by the reaction to the defeat and pointedly dedicated the victory to him.
The contrast to the mood after that opening game could hardly have been more marked, and neither could the contrast between Pekerman’s understated satisfaction and Nawalka’s awkward defensiveness.