Euro 2012 Preview: Poland
A relatively easy draw for the co-hosts has increased the pressure on coach Franciszek Smuda to make it to the quarterfinals, yet at the same time, a majority of Poles remain staunch pessimists. "It's a treacherous group," said Smuda, 63. "We have to be totally [focused] in each game and do our best to reach the knockout stage." The euphoria is not just tempered by Poland's status as the lowest FIFA-ranked team at the competition -- it was 65th in May, behind Libya, Panama and Iran -- but also by squabbles about tactics, discipline and a media controversy surrounding a host of naturalized players: Smuda has been criticized for picking "foreigners" like Eugen Polanski (Mainz 05), Ludovic Obraniak (Bordeaux) and Sebastian Boenisch (Werder Bremen).
Cologne-based midfielder Slawomir Peszko, on the other hand, was left behind after getting into fight with a German taxi driver and spending a night in a prison cell. A bigger concern is the dearth of genuine quality on the squad. Poland will heavily rely on Wojciech Szczesny in goal and on the Borussia Dortmund trio of Lukasz Piszczek (right back), Jakub "Kuba" Blaszczykowski (right midfield) and Robert Lewandowski, the star striker. Making it out of the group should not be beyond Smuda's men, but it's hard to see them progress any further.
The 23-year old has been a revelation in the past Bundesliga season. Lewandowski scored 22 league goals for Borussia Dortmund with a hat trick against Bayern Munich in the DFB Cup final for the German champions. A clinical finisher, his greatest assets are his close ball control, his intelligent movement and great physical presence. "Lewy" could be one of the stars of the tournament.
Real Madrid was only one of the many big names to monitor the Borussia Dortmund player's rapid progress -- the 26-year-old right-back has emerged as one of the best in the business in his position. Tireless running and accuracy with crosses are his key strengths, but he's also excellent in defensive duels.
The Polish skipper, 26, leads by example. He regularly patrols up and down the right side of midfield, covering every inch of grass along the way. There are more graceful players, but his decision-making and application are beyond reproach. "Kuba" has a keen eye for scoring, too.
Ludovic Obraniak, 27, the French-born midfielder, has done well as a second striker/No. 10 for Bordeaux in recent months. He'll have to defend more for Smuda's team, to be sure, but can he get enough of the ball to feed Lewandowski? Without his imaginative spark, Poland's attacking moves -- everything via the right side -- are too transparent.
Poland's dependency on its young forward is worrisome for two reasons. First, there are no credible backup solutions if he were to pick up an injury. Lewandowski's importance is also such that he was able to publicly pressure Smuda into changing the system. Will he lead another dressing-room revolt if things don't go according to plan?
A tournament curtain-raiser against the notoriously difficult Greeks will prove a serious test for Poland's mental fortitude. Plenty of local observers are unsure if Smuda's team will be able to cope. The second game, against arch-rival Russia, is potentially even trickier.
Following the addition of Lewandowski, Smuda has returned to a 4-2-3-1 system that will often resemble a 4-4-1-1, with Obraniak in a slightly advanced position behind the Dortmund striker. Poland's approach will be unapologetically based on counter attacking, even though the back four, Piszczek apart, look neither settled nor particularly strong. Crowding the midfield will be the main thrust, while Lewandowski is the perfect man to play with his back toward the opposition's goal and hold up the ball for reinforcements to arrive.
Against fairly modest opposition, the strong right side of Piszczek and "Kuba" should be able to make inroads, especially after winning the ball early. But there's no discernible Plan B if the team finds itself behind. Poland lacks both the personnel and the flexibility to change things, which will increase the pressure on a handful of outstanding players. Whether they can really lift the rest of the bunch out of mediocrity remains to be seen, however.