Milan Skriniar strike earns Slovakia Euro 2020 win over 10-man Poland

So much for Robert Lewandowski and Marek Hamsik. This match was decided by Milan Skriniar, who kept Poland’s talisman in his pocket throughout and won it midway through the second half with a finish that would have made either of those attacking maestros proud.

Skriniar has just enjoyed a marvellous season at the heart of Internazionale’s defence but hitting the heights with Slovakia tends to be another matter. They now have a foot in the last 16, though, and some valuable margin for error in their remaining Group E assignments against Sweden and Spain.

The same cannot be said of Poland, who had been quietly fancied to thrive before the tournament but have made a disastrous start. They appeared to have cleared their heads when Karol Linetty equalised Wojciech Szczesny’s own goal, the product of a poor first half showing, straight after the break and looked the likely winners. A needless red card for Grzegorz Krychowiak killed their momentum, though, and Skriniar took advantage with a firm half-volley after a virtuoso piece of control in the box.

It was to Poland’s huge frustration that the deciding strike came seven minutes after Krychowiak’s dismissal. Slovakia had been tough, astute and often fun to watch before the interval but were choked out of the game in the 15 minutes after Linetty scored. Krychowiak had established a hold on midfield and, at that point, a yellow card for pulling back the darting Jakub Hromada seemed to be the merest footnote. Then, in a harmless area of midfield, he bundled into the same player with another late challenge; the referee, Ovidiu Hategan, would have got away with deeming it last-warning territory but was also quite entitled to take the action he did. Off went Krychowiak and the worry for Poland, now, is that their hopes of progressing may have gone with him.

“I’m not a coach who will crucify a player,” Paulo Sousa said of his side’s miscreant. “We need to support him and be united with him. We need to have optimism: we still have six points to work for.”

Regardless of Krychowiak’s indiscretion, they might already have at least one if they had turned up for the opening period. Poland hogged the possession but Slovakia, picking their moments to attack and putting them in a spin down the flanks, were quicker and more inventive. They deserved their lead and the only possible frustration was that Szczesny’s name will adorn the record books, given the virtuoso work from Robert Mak that wrought it.

Taking possession near the left touchline with Kamil Jozwiak and Bartosz Bereszynski for company, Mak initially meandered away from goal. But Bereszynski gave him room to turn, allowing Mak to slip the ball through his legs and blaze a trail into the penalty area. Now he had a clear invitation to shoot but still seemed second favourite to Szczesny, whose near post should have been covered. Perhaps the keeper was perplexed by a slight glance off Kamil Glik; he was slow to get down and, after striking the upright, Mak’s low drive ricocheted in off his elbow.

“We can do much better, it was two against one outside the box,” Sousa said. “The circumstances were in our favour but we conceded the goal.”

Slovakia had a couple of half-chances to double their lead while Poland, for all their methodical buildup, offered Lewandowski thin gruel. He cut an isolated figure and, by half-time, his biggest contribution had been a potentially goal-saving early defensive header.

That seemed a concern of the past when, 30 seconds into the second half, Lewandowski and Mateusz Klich combined to free the left wing-back Maciej Rybus for a centre that Linetty steered in expertly. It was a slick move and Sousa’s interval instructions to offer Lewandowski more support appeared, for a while, to have tipped the balance. Slovakia were on the ropes but, granted a new chance to express themselves in Krychowiak’s absence, they turned the tide.

The sparky right-winger, Lukas Haraslin, won a corner and Mak’s delivery was flicked on beyond the penalty spot. Skriniar took it down masterfully with a telescopic leg, swivelled and did the rest. When Jan Bednarek missed from a similar position near the end, Slovakia could feel sure of the points.

“It wasn’t really about the result today, it was about showing what we are capable of: that our players can play really top-quality football,” the Slovakia head coach, Stefan Tarkovic, said. They may get a chance to press that home for at least three more games.