Head coach Czeslaw Michniewicz admitted his “heart stopped” during Poland’s 2-0 defeat to Argentina – a result which saw his side scrape into the last 16 of the World Cup on goal difference.
With Group C on a knife edge heading into the final round of fixtures, Mexico conceded a last-gasp goal in a 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia, sending Poland through after it had seemed for much of the second half that they would advance purely on fair play rules.
Second-half goals from Premier League duo Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alvarez ensured Argentina progressed as group winners after Lionel Messi saw a controversial penalty saved by Wojciech Szczesny.
Poland will face reigning champions France in the last 16, while Argentina come up against Australia.
Perhaps fittingly in the closing stages of the fixture at Stadium 974, everyone was number-crunching as Poland’s better fair play ranking had them squeaking through at Mexico’s expense – progressing by virtue of picking up three fewer bookings in the wake of Alvarez’s strike.
Grzegorz Krychowiak’s yellow card with 12 minutes remaining shortened that margin further still and Michniewicz revealed he was getting anxious.
“We had an agreement that only me and the technical staff would be across what was happening in the Mexico match, at one point in time I did pass on some information to Robert (Lewandowski),” he said.
“My heart stopped a bit when Grzegorz Krychowiak was booked, we knew it was minus three points and fair play was already taken into consideration.
“So Piotr Zielinski was supposed to leave but we substituted Krychowiak because for five minutes we didn’t have control of the game and couldn’t make the substitution, while he was endangered by the second yellow card.
“My technical staff told me there was only a difference of two or three yellow cards so it was very close, we were at a difficult time when it was 2-0.
“The mistake of Krychowiak could have made us go back to the hotel and pack but now I hear we are going to play France.
“I told them to avoid stupid cards, we were doing anything to avoid any provocation, avoid talking to referees.”
Poland have qualified from the group stage at a World Cup for the first time since 1986, and Michniewicz wanted to focus on that positive despite such a negative performance.
“We lost the game, it is very important but sometimes those defeats are bittersweet – or bitter and sweet – this was our case, we lost but we went through,” he added.
“After many, many years we went through to the next stage, I would like to congratulate my whole team and staff.
“We are very happy about it, we have worked hard, we have gained four points, the rules have been clear form the very beginning, we knew what was counted was the goals but also the yellow cards.”
The game in Doha ended three minutes before the whistle was blown at Lusail Stadium, where Mexico conceded a last-gasp goal as the Poland players – huddled around a screen on the pitch – celebrated wildly.
By that point, Argentina had sealed top spot as they recovered from their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in their opener in Qatar.
Manager Lionel Scaloni said that result should serve as a warning ahead of the Australia clash, where Argentina will be heavy favourites.
“Maybe we didn’t play that well against Saudi Arabia but we had the chances to win,” he said.
“We ended up losing so all matches are tough and if you think that the match against Australia is going to be easy you are wrong.
“When you are defeated you have to move on, you can’t keep thinking about that defeat – we had two more games to play and we have gone through now. We knew we had to win the remaining games.”