Wojciech Szczesny, Poland and the Juventus penalty taker

It was in the 39thth Minute of an entertaining first half as the game began to turn around between Poland and Saudi Arabia.

Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski had put Poland ahead just five minutes earlier by sweeping home Robert Lewandowski’s clever withdrawal after the Barcelona striker was ousted by goalkeeper Mohammed Khalil Al Owais.

But now Saudi Arabia had the chance to equalize with a penalty and all eyes were on Wojciech Szczesny and Salem Al Dawsari. As Al Dawsari began his run, Szczesny faked going left before light-footedly leaping to the right and saving Al Dawsari’s try, which was the perfect height for the keeper.

Better was yet to come.

A save from Szczesny didn’t clear the ball completely, it landed meters in front of Mohammed Al-Breik’s goal, the left-back scored with a solid shot to the left of Szczesny, but the Polish stopper, showing all the reflexes of a proverbial cat, parried the effort over the bar.

The Juventus goalkeeper was swarmed by his team-mates, knowing that an incredible chain of events had kept the Polish leadership in order. If you had watched Szczesny at Juve over the years, you would know that the 32-year-old would most likely save the penalty. He’s gotten pretty good at it since he joined The Old Lady five years ago.

“We found a way to analyze penalty takers and every now and then I save them,” he said after the game. “The record for the last two years is positive, I’ve conceded more penalties than goals conceded, so things are going well at Juve.”

Since joining Juventus in the summer of 2017, Szczesny has saved 11 out of 34 penalties. He saved three in Serie A last season and no one saved more.

Szczesny was one of Juve’s most reliable players at a time when the same cannot be said of too many of their players. When he joined the club he was understudy to the great Gianluigi Buffon, sitting under his learning tree and enjoying the experience of working and training alongside arguably the greatest goalkeeper in the history of the sport.

When Buffon left Juventus at the end of the 2017/2018 season, Szczesny became Juve’s undisputed No. 1 and hasn’t looked out of place ever since. Even when Buffon returned after his Paris stint lasted just one season, he remained No. 1.

“My first thought was that sometimes you have to take a step back to take two forward,” Szczesny told BBC Sport of his year as Buffon’s understudy. “As I analyzed the situation, it wasn’t a big step backwards because I knew I was going to play.

“I made 21 games, which is not bad for a second goalkeeper. I also had the opportunity to learn from one of history’s finest, and I had a year to prepare for the task of replacing him.

“It was the best career opportunity I could ever have.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been difficult times, Szczesny went through indifferent phases of form, especially in mid-2021. But for a club in flux since the sacking of Max Allegri in 2019 and last season’s Szczesny was their first trophy-less campaign in 11 years and an enduring constant at the Bianconeri side.

With Poland now topping Group C and a point ahead of everyone else, there is a real chance for the eastern European nation to make it back to the knockout stages for the first time since 1986. Should they lead the group, there is every chance that a quarter-final spot is up for grabs. And should that happen, Szczesny will play a big part in it.

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