On this underwhelming evidence Saudi Arabia must feel quietly confident about their chances of winning a now thoroughly intriguing, expectation-confounding, Group C. Mexico and Poland arrived at this most futuristic arena on the edge of the Arabian Sea after Argentina had been beaten by the Saudis. Poland, in particular, played much of the match as if still in shock.
Although Mexico were largely the better side, they struggled to conjure clear openings. Indeed, they had what is destined to be remembered as one of the great World Cup saves by their 37-year-old goalkeeper, Guillermo Ochoa, to thank for earning them a point when he kept out Robert Lewandowski’s second-half penalty.
In deceiving Poland’s captain courtesy of a magnificent dummy before scrambling clear a ball heading low for the bottom corner, Ochoa earned Mexico a deserved point. It left the record scorer looking mortified. Poland’s talisman is still to score at a World Cup finals and the team’s chances of progressing to the knockout stages for the first time in 36 years have receded appreciably after a trying evening at a ground constructed using a colourful tapestry of 974 interlocking shipping containers. Perhaps not coincidentally, that trio of numerals forms the international dialling code for Qatar.
From the outside a structure situated in Doha’s port area and scheduled to be repurposed for community use is an edgy, arresting piece of architecture and inside it was hugely atmospheric. Mexico is 9,000 miles from Qatar but 974 was a sea of green with most of the noise generated by their fans. Poland must have felt they were playing away.
Gerardo Martino, Argentinian coach, has claimed he is “public enemy No 1” in his adopted country after some slightly iffy results of late but Mexico took much of the game to their opponents. With Poland sitting extremely deep chances were rare.
A decent one did not arrive until virtually the half-hour mark when Héctor Herrera crossed and Alexis Vega out-leapt Aston Villa’s Matty Cash – who, despite being born in Slough, has a Polish grandparent – at the far post. From about six yards Vega, a strong man-of-the-match candidate, sent his header bouncing wide.
With the Napoli winger Hirving Lozano fazing Bartosz Bereszynski, Czeslaw Michniewicz, Poland’s head coach, had much to ponder and must have been relieved to see his goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, deny Jesús Gallardo.
Of equal concern was Lewandowski’s peripheral role. He completed an uncharacteristically low number of passes and in the first half he touched the ball inside Mexico’s area once.
His room for manoeuvre proved severely restricted as he and his side struggled to conjure chances, let alone direct them on target.
It did not help his cause that his teammates retreated so deep, starving him of the service he needs to sprinkle his customary magic over proceedings. If Poland had felt brave enough to press a little higher up the pitch it might have been different.
As Lewandowski failed to impress, Henry Martín, Mexico’s central striker also exerted limited influence – even if he did see a dangerous glancing second-half header well saved by Szczesny – with the principal Mexico threat delivered down the flanks.
Martín’s lack of impact threatened to cost them dear when, early in the second half, Héctor Moreno tugged Lewandowski’s shirt during a tussle in the area and, after a VAR review, conceded a penalty and collected a yellow card.
The striker placed the ball on the spot and took a couple of deep breaths. His run-up looked a little nervous but, even though the kick was not his best, he still aimed, accurately, for the bottom corner, out of the reach of most goalkeepers.
To the crowd’s considerable delight Ochoa proved equal to the challenge. After deceiving Lewandowski by feinting to dive to the right, he acrobatically changed course in mid-air and, throwing himself to the left, the keeper succeeded in extending a hand to palm the ball clear.
“I worked on that [the feint] for one month with the goalkeeping coach,” he said.
“Robert is very emotional in the dressing room,” said Michniewicz. “He needs time to digest what happened but we’ll help him and I’m sure he’ll help us against Argentina and the sensational Saudi Arabia.”
And to think Ochoa, a veteran of five World Cups, was rejected by Fulham 12 years ago after a trial when Roy Hodgson was in charge.