Euro 2012 preview: Poland
Robert Lewandowski will look to give the Poles goals
The last European Championship was PolandÃ¢ÂÂs first, but it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ¨the Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, said Ã¢ÂÂ¨heÃ¢ÂÂd felt like Ã¢ÂÂkillingÃ¢ÂÂ the referee.
All of this rather disguised the fact that the Poles hadnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 Ã¢ÂÂ¨somehow lost 2-1 Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ90s. After the optimism that carried Leo BeenhakkerÃ¢ÂÂs side to Austria and Switzerland, expectations are far more muted this time. Ã¢ÂÂWhat will a football fan do when Poland win Euro 2012?Ã¢ÂÂ runs a popular joke. Ã¢ÂÂTurn off the video game and go to sleep.Ã¢ÂÂ
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. Ã¢ÂÂWe donÃ¢ÂÂt have stars,Ã¢ÂÂ 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. Ã¢ÂÂWe can only accomplish something as a team.Ã¢ÂÂ
Slowly, there is evidence of his side coming together. Poland have lost just one of their Ã¢ÂÂ¨last nine friendlies Ã¢ÂÂ to Italy Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ¨Robert Lewandowski. Blaszczykowski usually operates on the right with Lewandowski as Ã¢ÂÂ¨the main centre-forward, playing just ahead Ã¢ÂÂ¨of BordeauxÃ¢ÂÂs Ludovic Obraniak, a Ligue 1 Ã¢ÂÂ¨title-winner at Lille last season.
As Smuda said, though, this side isnÃ¢ÂÂt really about individuals Ã¢ÂÂ itÃ¢ÂÂs about the collective, and that it is coming together is borne out Ã¢ÂÂ¨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 Ã¢ÂÂ¨last tournament
You have to hope Poland have learned Ã¢ÂÂ¨to be realistic about expectations and not blame referees for their failings, Ã¢ÂÂ¨as they did in 2008. While they would hardly be alone among national teams Ã¢ÂÂ¨if they didnÃ¢ÂÂt, the sense in the build-up to the tournament is of a side aware Ã¢ÂÂ¨of its limitations, even as co-hosts.
Although both Austria and Switzerland failed to make it through the group stage four years ago, home support is always a major factor Ã¢ÂÂ¨in international tournaments Ã¢ÂÂ 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.
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. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre about effort and stopping the opposition playing, which means Poland effectively play a broken team with Ã¢ÂÂ¨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 knowÃ¢ÂÂ¦?
Before eliminating England from the 1974 World Cup, PolandÃ¢ÂÂs only previous appearance in a major tournament had come in 1938, when Ernest Wilimowski scored four in a Ã¢ÂÂ¨6-5 extra-time defeat to Brazil in Strasbourg and later defected to play for Germany.
Wojciech Szaniawski, FourFourTwo Poland
Ã¢ÂÂBoth 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 donÃ¢ÂÂt even dream of playing in the final. The goal is to advance to the quarter-finals out of, theoretically, the weakest group. DortmundÃ¢ÂÂs title-winning Polish trio Ã¢ÂÂ Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek Ã¢ÂÂ will need to carry their form into the tournament while ArsenalÃ¢ÂÂs Wojciech Szczesny has the chance to become a hero.Ã¢ÂÂ
Home advantage to prove vital in open group.
Wojciech Szczesny must take his domestic form to the international stage
The outspoken Arsenal goalkeeper has been one Ã¢ÂÂ¨of the most consistent players Ã¢ÂÂ¨in an inconsistent team this season at the Emirates.
At 22 and 6ft 5in he is a massive prospect for the future of PolishÃ¢ÂÂ¨football in more ways than one, Ã¢ÂÂ¨but Szczesny really needs to perform like an experienced veteran this Ã¢ÂÂ¨summer if the Poles are to Ã¢ÂÂ¨succeed in front of their home fans.
The outspoken Ã¢ÂÂ¨coach has never been one to hold back, criticising his nationÃ¢ÂÂs centre-backs, stating: Ã¢ÂÂIf someone can find Ã¢ÂÂ¨a class defender with a Polish passport, they deserve a special bonus.Ã¢ÂÂ After ten years of thinking about it, he finally landed the job in 2009 having managed 15 clubs and won three Ã¢ÂÂ¨Polish league titles.
How they play
For all PolandÃ¢ÂÂs recent improvement, SmudaÃ¢ÂÂs hunt for a settled defensive unit is proving difficult Ã¢ÂÂ 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.
1960 DNQ (Did not qualify)
2008 First round
June 8, Greece (Warsaw, 5pm)
June 12, Russia (Warsaw, 7.45pm)
June 16, Czech Republic (Wroclaw, 7.45pm)
Poland are 50-1 to win Euro 2012 and 33-1 to score more goals than any other team.
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FOURFOURTWO'S EURO 2012 PREVIEWS
Grp A: Poland Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Russia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Greece Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Czech Republic
Grp B: Netherlands Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Germany Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Portugal Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Denmark
Grp C: Spain Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Italy Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Croatia Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Republic of Ireland
Grp D: Ukraine Ã¢ÂÂ¢ England Ã¢ÂÂ¢ France Ã¢ÂÂ¢ Sweden
...and there's more: try Back of the Net's satirical previews