Jun 8, 2012

Euro 2012 Co-Host Poland May Just Be the Surprise Team

The quadrennial UEFA European Football Championships are not often kind to the host nations. Only once, in 1984, has the home side won the tournament. Four years ago, Switzerland and Austria didn't survive the group stage despite some high hopes, particularly in the former's case (true story: on the eve of Euro 2008, a cabby in Lucerne told me with a straight face that Switzerland had a realistic chance of winning the entire thing). This historic precedent, along with the fact that neither Ukraine nor Poland have particularly impressed in their warmup matches, has led many pundits (this one included) to dismiss them as serious contenders.

But at closer glance, the Polish side has many of the intangibles necessary to surprise us: a hungry young squad, a terrific creative midfielder, a lethal striker, an intriguing coach and a solid defensive style tailor-made for this particular tournament (see Greece, 2004). And of course, low expectations, rabid home fans and the easiest (by far) group stage draw.

Let's start with the most obvious first: Poland's opponents in Group A are Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic, in that order. While all are potentially intriguing squads, none really scare us. Greece, for all their success earlier this century, have really not defeated a quality European side in some time (go ahead, look it up; their toughest opponents in qualifying were Croatia and Israel, their record at the 2010 World Cup was pretty dismal and they went three and out at Euro 2008). Russian soccer is much like the Russian military: never as weak as it looks and never as strong as it looks (as that Metternich guy supposedly said). Plus didnt Russia invade Poland like, a million times? The home side will surely get up for that match, even if many of their players are Polish by passport only. The Czech team is in transition and appears far less impressive than during its glory days last decade.

Poland's roster is the second-youngest in the tournament behind Germany's. That surely bodes well for the future of the Polish FA and there's no reason it can't use the Euro as its coming of age story. A closer look at the Polish side reveals experience in areas where it counts most, namely defense and defensive midfield: Marcin Wasilewski who anchors the back line is the team's oldest player at 31. Defensive mid Dariusz Dudka is 28.

The star of the squad is undoubtedly Robert Lewandowski, last season's player of the year in the German Bundesliga. The 23- year old is said to be headed to Manchester United next season after helping Borussia Dortmund to back-to-back Bundesliga titles. While his (relative) lack of scoring in European competition is a concern to some, it can just as easily be seen as a motivating factor that will put him over the top and cement his status as a world class player. Besides, he did score in a friendly with Germany last fall.

Lewandowski's Borussia teammate Jakub Blaszczyjowski (good luck trying to spell that one), the Polish captain, is arguably one of the best all-around players in the game right now. Kuba, as he's (thankfully) known in the international press, can defend, finish and most impressive of all, pass. His through balls are works of art, the types of passes into space that recall Ruud Gullit (as a player, not coach) or Michel Platini.

Lewansowski and Kuba have another Borussia teammate, Lukasz Piszczek, who can create goals. More importantly, Piszczek (wtf is it with these Polish names. I mean really) is the type of player who as a wingback creates what American pundits often refer to as "matchup problems" for opposing sides. Either way, the Lewandowski-Kuba-Piszczek trio are a formidable force and one that has experience playing together for their club team. That is an advantage difficult to match.

If Poland have a good game and defeat Greece later today, they will be in the driver's seat, needing just two points from those last two games to qualify. By that point we may all be singing the praises of Smuda, Lewansowski, Kuba et als. Stranger things have happened.

1 comment:

  1. Well for about 30 minutes this post looked very prescient. Then the Poles decided they had done enough and, well, you know the rest. Russia, meanwhile, look like the real quality of the group. But you know what Metternich said about Russia..l