Xherdan Shaqiri stunner to no avail as Granit Xhaka misses in shootout
SAINT-ETIENNE, France -- Three thoughts on Poland's 5-4 win over Switzerland on penalties in the round of 16.
1. Granit Xhaka and Switzerland's shootout torment
This was a cruel penalty shootout defeat for Switzerland, and especially Granit Xhaka, who missed a crucial kick.
There will be no solace that Xherdan Shaqiri, with his acrobatic bicycle-kick volley, will surely take the goal of the tournament -- an 82nd moment of inspiration arriving just when Switzerland looked finished. The stunning goal helped set up the shootout and Grzegorz Krychowiak converted the vital penalty to settle a contest between two teams both playing in their first ever European Championship knockout match.
Poland should be relieved after their failure to score more than the single goal they scored for their first-half dominance. In the latter stages, it was left to Lukasz Fabianski to ward off Swiss pressure, and he made a full-length save from Eren Derdiyok in the second half of extra-time.
It seemed a long time since Jakub Blaszczykowski, who has now scored or assisted each of Poland's past five goals at the Euros (out of a total of six), had finished coolly after Kamil Grosick powered down the left and drifted his cross to the opposite post for the former captain to score.
"Kuba" is Poland's man for the big occasion. Even Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich goal machine who replaced Blaszczykowski as captain in 2013, must bow to him on that score. The current captain has not scored at the Euros since the opening match of Euro 2012 and struggled here under some heavy physical attention.
When that Blaszczykowski goal came in the 39th minute, Poland had already created a series of first half chances with Paris Saint-Germain target Krychowiak blowing the best of them when he nodded an Arkadiusz Milik corner over the bar.
At that point, Grosicki, on the left flank, was Poland's greatest threat, and too much for Swiss captain Stephane Lichtsteiner. Milik, meanwhile, repeated his group-stage difficulties, incapable of hitting the target when missing three decent first-half chances. And when Grosicki tired, Switzerland became far more effective.
Poland tried and failed to shut up shop in the second half while the Swiss fans booed time-wasting from Fabianski, and when both Lewandowski and Milik received lengthy treatment for injuries.
Switzerland were much improved by then and came close when Ricardo Rodriguez's free kick was well saved by Fabianski. Haris Seferovic then smashed the crossbar in the 79th minute after Xhaka had carved space on the flank.
Then came Shaqiri's moment of brilliance, but sadly for Switzerland, it counted for nothing in the end.
2. Robert Lewandowski continues to toil
Lewandowski's failure to score so far in France was no cause for panic in the group stage for Poland coach Adam Nawalka. The team had performed impressively enough around him as the star man took the attention of opposing defenders.
The pattern was repeated here in southeast France. Milik, playing behind him, was struggling and knew it. The Ajax man's celebration of his successful spot kick was a study in relief. The opening seconds had provided a case in point of his woes. Lewandowski's reading of a reckless Johan Djourou back pass forced the ball into Milik's path, with Yann Sommer marooned. Milik smashed his shot over the bar as excitement got the better of him once more. Lewandowski had an early chance, too, but could only nod Grosicki's cross into Sommer's hands before Milik blasted over the bar.
It looked slippery at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, the result of a torrential downpour that had raged throughout Friday night. Lewandowski looked to be concerned about the suitability of his studs for the conditions. Around him, his colleagues were a little more surefooted, though by dropping deep he played his part in Blaszczykowski's goal by once again drawing away attention.
After the break, he at last found a little more space, pinging a first-time shot that Sommer saved with some discomfort. Not long after that, Fabian Schar committed a reckless foul as Lewandowski tried to launch an attack down the left.
Schar looked fortunate to stay on the field, as the number of fouls on Lewandowski began to mount up. That tackle had Bayern's star man rolling in pain after his ankle had been crunched, and he was markedly less effective in leading the line for his team. As the tackles kept flying in and his teammates struggled, his frustration was writ large. Poland will hope he finds form in front of goal in the last eight.
3. Swiss struggle up top
There is quality within Switzerland's team with Shaqiri, Rodriguez and Xhaka around, but they lack a striker.
Seferovic struggled throughout the group stage yet kept his place ahead of the much-coveted Basel teenager Breel Embolo, 19. Coach Vladimir Petkovic opted for the Eintracht Frankfurt man's greater experience but paired them together from the 59th minute when sending Embolo on as a sub. His arrival gave added power but not much quality. His best opening saw him skew a shot horribly wide, before Seferovic then rattled the crossbar.
Shaqiri's equalising goal was sensational, bailing out his strikers, but they were denied the chance of rectifying their woes later in the tournament following an agonising defeat in the shootout.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.