The final set of World Cup group-stage games can create more stress and anxiety than any person can reasonably be expected to handle. Watching one game in which advancement to the next round is on the line is enough to fray the nerves, but things can turn downright hallucinogenic when there's another game being played simultaneously, and every single development in each game alters the stakes of the other.
We were treated to one of those crazy-making combinations of games this afternoon, when Poland took on Argentina and Mexico took on Saudi Arabia. All four teams had something to play for, but nobody's path forward was easier than Poland's. All it had to do to ensure advancement to the next round was get a draw, or failing that just not get blown out by so many goals that Mexico could gain the edge in goal difference by handily beating Saudi Arabia. Poland was perhaps a little too comfortable with this state of play, and put together one of the worst performances of the tournament. Poland finished the match, a 2–0 loss, with just 26 percent possession, four total shots, and zero shots on goal. Argentina, meanwhile, was assaulting Poland's penalty area all night, firing off 23 shots and getting 12 of them on target.
By the time Argentina went up 2–0 in the 67th minute, Mexico was leading Saudi Arabia 2–0 and had erased the goal-difference gap between itself and Poland. This is the point at which the madness officially started. If Mexico scored a goal, it would be through. If Argentina scored another goal, Mexico would be through. And if everything stayed exactly as it was, Poland would advance only because it had received fewer yellow cards than Mexico (this is the third tiebreaker that FIFA uses in these situations, after goal difference and goals scored). The Mexicans met this challenge by pushing hard for a third goal, and at multiple points during the second half they came so close to putting one more into the net. Argentina kept playing hard, too, and created its own collection of how the fuck did that not go in? chances throughout the last 20 minutes of the game. But Poland? Poland played like a team of clowns!
There are times when even good soccer teams can't help but find themselves at the mercy of the rhythms of the game. You saw that a little bit with how the USMNT finished its game against Iran—all that late, hair-on-fire defending happened more or less because that's just how games tend to develop when the winning team can't find a decisive second goal early on and the losing team becomes increasingly desperate to score. That's not what happened to Poland today, though. From the opening kick-off, Poland was only ever interested in putting as many guys behind the ball as possible and defending. Even when Poland went down 2–0, and the coaches on the bench were surely aware that Mexico was beating up on Saudi Arabia, when the situation demanded some bravery, some fight, some desire from the players to not go out like chumps, Poland stayed shivering inside its shell. Forget a win or a draw, at that point all Poland needed was a single measly goal to put the drama to rest, and yet the guys on the field couldn't muster a single shot on target.
It's not up to me to decide which teams do and don't "deserve" to make it out of the group stage, but it's definitely unsatisfying to see a team play as meekly as Poland did and still advance, all while the other three teams in its group were playing like they'd just listened to the Any Given Sunday halftime speech. The only Polish player who shouldn't be feeling any shame right now is keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who made 10 saves (including a penalty) and had the good sense to offer this wry assessment of his team's performance:
I hope France beats these guys by seven goals.