Expert analysis of the events in Poland and Ukraine
Robert Lewandowski will look to give the Poles goals
The last European Championship was Poland’s first, but it wasn’t exactly memorable: they were eliminated after taking just a point from their three games.
After a 2-0 defeat to Germany, the crucial game came against the co-hosts, Austria. Poland led 1-0 going into injury-time but were undone by a penalty awarded by Howard Webb – correctly, albeit for no more than routine penalty-box tussling. The Polish tabloids, conveniently ignoring the fact that their goal was offside, laid into Webb, one depicting his head on a dartboard while
the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said
he’d felt like “killing” the referee.
All of this rather disguised the fact that the Poles hadn’t played very well. Their problems, though, were brought home in a crushing way in the World Cup qualifiers. After a 1-1 draw with Slovenia, a simple win over San Marino and an impressive victory over the Czechs, Poland topped their group after three games. They led Slovakia 1-0 with five minutes remaining in their fourth fixture, but
somehow lost 2-1 – and then collapsed, beating only San Marino in the six games that remained to finish fifth out of six in their group.
Failure to qualify led to Stefan Majewski being replaced as coach by Franciszek Smuda, who led Widzew Lodz to two Polish titles and Wisla Krakow to another in the ’90s. After the optimism that carried Leo Beenhakker’s side to Austria and Switzerland, expectations are far more muted this time. “What will a football fan do when Poland win Euro 2012?” runs a popular joke. “Turn off the video game and go to sleep.”
Smuda has tried to instil defensive discipline and collective responsibility, and both were in evidence in the 0-0 draw against Portugal with which Poland inaugurated their new national stadium in February. “We don’t have stars,” Smuda said, insisting that Russia are favourites to win what looks just about as soft a group as the co-hosts could have hoped for. “We can only accomplish something as a team.”
Slowly, there is evidence of his side coming together. Poland have lost just one of their
last nine friendlies – to Italy – as Smuda has settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation in which the two most familiar names are Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny and Jakub Blaszczykowski, plus his Borussia Dortmund team-mate
Robert Lewandowski. Blaszczykowski usually operates on the right with Lewandowski as
the main centre-forward, playing just ahead
of Bordeaux’s Ludovic Obraniak, a Ligue 1
title-winner at Lille last season.
As Smuda said, though, this side isn’t really about individuals – it’s about the collective, and that it is coming together is borne out
by their defensive record. Nine goals conceded in 10 games might not sound too special, but given they played France, Germany, Italy and Portugal in that run, it suggests a resolve that was perhaps lacking four years ago.
Jakub Blaszczykowski will provide a real threat down the Polish right
Lesson from their
last tournament You have to hope Poland have learned
to be realistic about expectations and not blame referees for their failings,
as they did in 2008. While they would hardly be alone among national teams
if they didn’t, the sense in the build-up to the tournament is of a side aware
of its limitations, even as co-hosts.
Strengths Although both Austria and Switzerland failed to make it through the group stage four years ago, home support is always a major factor
in international tournaments – as Gabon and Equatorial Guinea proved this year by both reaching the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations. Passionate fans and new stadia could give impetus to a squad that is looking tightly bonded; Poland are difficult to break down and, in Lewandowski and Blaszczykowski, they have genuine quality in attacking areas if the ball can be worked to them quickly enough.
Weaknesses So far Smuda has struggled to strike the right balance between attack and defence, and the holding midfield duo of Rafal Murawski and Dariusz Dudka (or Eugen Polanski) offers little in the way of guile. They’re about effort and stopping the opposition playing, which means Poland effectively play a broken team with
six deep and four forward. Bridging that divide can be a problem, as their record of 11 goals scored in those last 10 friendlies suggests.
Did you know…? Before eliminating England from the 1974 World Cup, Poland’s only previous appearance in a major tournament had come in 1938, when Ernest Wilimowski scored four in a
6-5 extra-time defeat to Brazil in Strasbourg and later defected to play for Germany.
Expert’s view Wojciech Szaniawski, FourFourTwo Poland “Both in the opening match and the final of Euro 2004, the same two teams competed against each other: hosts Portugal and Greece. The hosts will again kick off against Greece, but Poland don’t even dream of playing in the final. The goal is to advance to the quarter-finals out of, theoretically, the weakest group. Dortmund’s title-winning Polish trio – Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek – will need to carry their form into the tournament while Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny has the chance to become a hero.”
VerdictHome advantage to prove vital in open group.
Wojciech Szczesny must take his domestic form to the international stage
Key playerWojciech SzczesnyThe outspoken Arsenal goalkeeper has been one
of the most consistent players
in an inconsistent team this season at the Emirates.At 22 and 6ft 5in he is a massive prospect for the future of Polish
football in more ways than one,
but Szczesny really needs to perform like an experienced veteran this
summer if the Poles are to
succeed in front of their home fans.
The ManagerFranciszek SmudaThe outspoken
coach has never been one to hold back, criticising his nation’s centre-backs, stating: “If someone can find
a class defender with a Polish passport, they deserve a special bonus.” After ten years of thinking about it, he finally landed the job in 2009 having managed 15 clubs and won three
Polish league titles.
How they playFor all Poland’s recent improvement, Smuda’s hunt for a settled defensive unit is proving difficult – he has changed the back four on numerous occasions. The coach will more than likely continue to play five across the middle in an attempt to combat this issue, leaving Lewandowski up top on his own. In decent form for club side Borussia Dortmund, the striker has scored 13 goals in 40 games for Poland.
Euro record1960 DNQ (Did not qualify) 1964 DNQ1968 DNQ1972 DNQ1976 DNQ1980 DNQ1984 DNQ1988 DNQ1992 DNQ1996 DNQ2000 DNQ2004 DNQ2008 First round
Group fixturesJune 8, Greece (Warsaw, 5pm)June 12, Russia (Warsaw, 7.45pm)June 16, Czech Republic (Wroclaw, 7.45pm)
OddsPoland are 50-1 to win Euro 2012 and 33-1 to score more goals than any other team.Exclusive Coral/FourFourTwo free bet offer: Bet £30, get £60.More details coral.co.uk/fourfourtwo
FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland • Russia • Greece • Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands • Germany • Portugal • Denmark
Grp C: Spain • Italy • Croatia • Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine • England • France • Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews
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