For Wales, this Nations League opener was always going to be tantamount to a character-building exercise to warm up for their biggest game in 64 years and an impressive showing in Wroclaw despite defeat by Poland provided a welcome takeaway days before their World Cup playoff final.
Rob Page unapologetically admitted that he named an experimental team with one eye on the Sunday showdown in Cardiff, a game that has crept up in the rear-view mirror.
Wales led through Jonny Williams’s second goal for his country, a fine strike from 20 yards, but the Poland substitutes Jakub Kaminski and Karol Swiderski reversed the scoring to secure the hosts’ victory.
Page said it would have been mad to jeopardise any of Wales’s key men and so Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ben Davies were present in the dressing room before and after the game but rested altogether with the bigger picture in mind.
“I made sure they were in the changing room,” the Wales manager said. “They’re a massive influence on that group and I wanted them in there. Even at half-time I wanted them to be a part of it and they were the first ones through the door at the end. I didn’t need to risk Aaron, Gareth, Ben, Joe, there was no benefit in that whatsoever.”
Williams’s strike was a beauty, a dart-like finish from the edge of the box that flew into the top corner. Kaminski guided in his first Poland goal with 72 minutes on the clock before Swiderski feasted on the scraps after Robert Lewandowski’s shot was deflected.
“We took the lead against a very good Polish team and I thought we deserved a point,” Page said. “The second goal was scrappy; it’s taken two deflections, it falls to him four yards out, of course he’s going to score.”
The nature of the Wales lineup meant a mismatch was inevitable and there was none bigger than Chris Gunter, a free agent after leaving Charlton Athletic of League One, being asked to cope with Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker who wants to join Barcelona after reaching a verbal agreement with the Spanish club.
Gunter, who became the first male to win 100 caps for Wales last year, captained his country and played on the right side of a three-man defence. The Ipswich wing-back Wes Burns made his senior debut on the left flank and Williams, who spent last season in League Two with Swindon, operated behind Kieffer Moore and Daniel James.
The goalkeeper Danny Ward made a sprawling save to deny Lewandowski on 21 minutes after Poland’s record goalscorer, this his 130th cap, melted the Wales defence with a surging run that began with nutmegging Dylan Levitt on halfway and then bamboozling Chris Mepham before being invited to shoot.
Poland passed up another chance five minutes before half-time, Adam Buksa failing to connect inside the box. But Wales were bright and boisterous, typified by Burns smacking a volley goalwards from Williams’s neat teed cross. James also dropped a shot wide of a post and before the break he wriggled clear inside the box but could not locate Moore.
James and Moore, the only outfield starters with a realistic chance of beginning the match on Sunday, played only the first half, as did Ward, who last month made his first Premier League start for Leicester almost four years after joining the club, before being replaced by Wayne Hennessey, another player in the 100-club. Another former Liverpool goalkeeper, Kamil Grabara, now of Copenhagen, made his senior debut for Poland, who were without Aston Villa’s Matty Cash and Napoli’s Arkadiusz Milik through injury.
How do Wales set about preparing for what will be the biggest game of most of their careers? “We want to keep the environment exactly the same,” Page said. “There’s nothing different about how we’re going to plan, how we’re going to train. We don’t need to create that added pressure. We don’t need it, we don’t want it. We thrive on occasions like this; we’ve done it in the past and so it’s ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. We’ll be throwing everything we’ve got into winning that game.”