Poland will be playing in just their third European Championships when they kick-off against Northern Ireland on 12th June in Nice. Surprisingly, the Polish never qualified for a finals before 2008, despite having their best team during the mid-1970s that famously qualified for the 1974 World Cup after holding the much-fancied England to a draw at Wembley.
In both of their previous campaigns to date (2008, 2012), the Eastern Europeans have exited at the group stage, which was especially disappointing on home soil four years ago – the country will be hoping for a better showing in France, but have been drawn into a difficult Group C.
Poland’s Group C opponents include local rivals Germany and Ukraine as well as Northern Ireland who are expected to be the whipping boys of the group. Perhaps the biggest test will come against the Germans, but Poland have several experienced players plying their trade in the Bundesliga, so will be relying on their knowledge in an attempt to combat the World champions attacks.
After finishing just one point behind Germany in the qualifying rounds, can Polish fans be optimistic about team’s chances in Euro 2016?
Polish fans are as optimistic as they’ve ever been-or at least since the early 1970s. This is Poland’s best team since those days four decades ago. They beat Germany for the first time in their history in the qualifiers to get to the Euros and with the expended system, there is no reason for Poland to get out of group stage – which would be the first time they have in the European Cup.
The goal is to advance from the group with anything less being seen as a major disappointment. But how far can they go depends on how quickly some of their younger players develop on the big stage. I personally believe they can make it the the semi-finals. A lot has to go their way for that to happen, of course, but I do think it is achievable. A more realistic prediction would be for Poland to advance to the quarter-finals. That would be seen as a very good tournament for the country and really get fans excited for the future.
Who were the stand-out players during the qualifying process?
The Polish national team was mainly led by their two prolific strikers, Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik. The former scored 13 goals, while Milik scored six goals including the winner versus Germany in Warsaw. But, for me, the biggest star of qualifiers was Adam Nawałka – the head coach.
He brought a belief to the team which it has lacked for a long time. The atmosphere of the national team has changed under his leadership – the team is more united and is hungrier then it’s ever been. Nawałka has everyone believing they are part of the puzzle, and was rewarded by big performances by less popular choices in the squad, such as Sebastian Mila (scored against Germany), Sławomir Peszko (scored the only goal in a 1-1 draw in Dublin), among others. Everyone who plays feels that they have a role in the team.
Poland have been drawn in Group C alongside Germany, Ukraine and Northern Ireland. With two local rivals to face can we expect things to get heated on the pitch?
I don’t think so. This Polish team employs many players who play in big clubs in big leagues. Players such as Lewandowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Kuba Błaszczykowski, Kamil Glik, Łukasz Fabiański, and Wojciech Szczęsny, have played for big clubs in big leagues with some winning numerous trophies.
I think the leadership is very professional and they know how to handle themselves so they don’t get involved with any mind games. Poland has often played Germany is recent years too, so despite being a heated rival, they know what it takes to play them. Poland will need to play a perfect game and steal three points so I don’t think you’ll see too much aggression once the game kicks off.
What kind of tactics do you expect head coach Adam Nawałka to employ during the finals? Will they be more attacking or defensive minded in the tournament?
Poland play a 4-2-3-1 system with Milik playing in a spot right below the central attacking midfielder position and just above Lewandowski.
Poland doesn’t have the best defence, so they need to focus on not conceding too many goals as a team. It is still unknown who will partner Glik in central defence, but it looks like Bartosz Salamon or Michał Pazdan will be the likely candidates.
They will play two defensive midfielders, with the wing backs (Łukasz Piszczek and Maciej Rybus) providing width and speed down the wings to aid the attack. Poland play almost like Leicester City – defend, without much possession, but once they get the ball, it’s an all-out attack. Quick passes up-field, with the pacey wing backs on the flanks before crossing the ball in for Milik and Lewandowski.
They also have players with long range shooting ability to keep teams on their toes – Krychowiak, Błaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki, all have excellent shots.
The Polish team isn’t good enough at the back to constantly be on the attack, so they need to be careful and set up well defensively to keep the opposition at bay.
Apart from Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Błaszczykowski, who will be the key players for Poland in the summer?
This is a great question because this is the most fun question when it comes to the Polish national team, due to the fact that there are many players who can shine for Poland. Milik just had an unbelievable last six months with Ajax Amsterdam. He’s been linked with big clubs all throughout Europe.
Krychowiak is now a two-time Europa League champion and one of the better defensive midfielders in La Liga for Sevilla. He’s been outstanding for Poland but a big tournament in France could really put him on the football map. He’s our second most talented player.
Piotr Zieliński, who has played for Empoli on loan for the last two seasons, is coming off a great year at the age of 22 and has an imminent deal with Liverpool according to several reports in Poland. He wasn’t a starter during qualifiers, and may not even start when Poland play Northern Ireland, but as the tournament goes on, he can play his way in and become a big part of the team if Poland advances to the latter rounds.
Central defender Salamon who may start in the summer, just got promoted back to Serie A with Cagliari in Italy and was one of the key players during the season. He was once scouted by José Mourinho and signed by AC Milan. The potential is there and maybe now he’s finally showing it. This could be a big tournament for him.
Focussing on a less likely player to take a starring role, 18-year-old Bartosz Kapustka is one of the most skilled teenagers we’ve ever had. His main position is attacking midfielder, but he can play on either wing, forward or even defensive midfield. He’s a very talented player, has speed and pace, is comfortable on the ball and has a very high footballing IQ. Chances of him becoming a ‘star’ during Euro 2016 are unlikely, but I do think Nawałka will give him some game time.
How are the team preparing for the Finals? Are there any challenging friendlies, training camps, etc?
From May 16th until the 22nd the Polish team got together for a camp near the Baltic sea. The players were also able to bring families (wives, girlfriends, kids). While the team trained hard, they also did fun activities such as soccer-volleyball, 5 km bike rides, and such, but also allowed them to spend time with families as team building exercises. They wanted to keep everyone relaxed during the week despite some physical activity.
On Monday, May 23rd, they will report to a different base, and that will only be for the players. Training will become more serious at that time and practice daily without any distractions. Players who participated in Cup finals (Piszczek, Lewandowski and Krychowiak) will meet them there on the 24th of May.
Poland will play the Netherlands on June 1st in Warsaw and Lithuania on June 6th in Krakow, then fly to their camp resort in France on June 7th.
Are there any potential star players coming through the Polish youth ranks?
Poland has several good youth projects. Kapustka is the best of them all. Others, who are expected to make it to the final 23-man Euro squad are defender Paweł Dawidowicz, a 21-year-old who currently plays for the Benfica junior team – he is expected to be a star defender of the future.
Midfielder Karol Linetty currently plays in the Polish league with Lech Poznań but is expected to move soon. He’s well build and strong on the ball and can also attack at a good rate. There is the hope for Linetty to be next to Krychowiak at some point during World Cup qualifiers.
Striker Mariusz Stępiński moved to Bundesliga club FC Nürnberg at the age of 18 and failed because he wasn’t ready. He’s returned to Poland and playing well with Ruch Chorzów. Next time he moves ( which will be this summer), he’ll be much more ready and developed. There was some chatter about Chelsea being a possible link, although I am not sure how much I believe in that. He is a player who wants to be the best, listens to his coaches and puts in the work. He is the first player at practice and last to leave.
More established players, such as Milik and Zieliński, are well on their way, as talked about previously. Milik is linked with clubs such as Inter Milan, Sevilla, Roma, Lazio, while Zieliński will soon join Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Anything Klopp touches turns into gold, so the sky is the limit for Zieliński.
As for players not going to Euros, the brightest are midfielder 18-year-old Krystian Bielik, captain of the Arsenal Under-21 team, is expected to be on Arsenal senior squad next season and striker Dawid Kownacki. Kownacki is linked with newly promoted Bundesliga squad Red Bull Leipzig and Liverpool. At age of 19, he’s already played just under 70 matches in the Polish top division, and has scored 12 goals. With Lech Poznań, he won the Polish league in 2014-15.
What is the state of domestic football these days? Like with many other countries in Eastern Europe, do bigger teams overseas poach the league’s best players?
The Polish Ekstraklasa is still struggling with little success in Europe but it’s getting better. Player development is at its best point with teams spending more money on youth development then ever before. Due to Euro 2012, most teams now have state of the art stadiums so the league is improving.
Of course, big clubs buy any stars that the league creates but that is just normal football business. The league is adding more skilled players because many are starting to ignore Ukraine due to their current political situation.
I think the Polish league could add even more players from Ukraine this summer and Legia Warsaw are attempting to be the first Polish participate in the Champions League in over 20 years. Warsaw’s golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolić (will play for Hungary in Euro 2016) will gather interest from bigger clubs in Europe as well as in China.
The Polish have gained a reputation for being one of the most feared due to their unsavoury hooligan element among the fans – are we likely to see this darker side of Polish football in France?
I don’t believe so. There will always be the “hooligan” type of fans but the Euros like the World Cup are very well policed and secure. Euro 2012 was in Poland and in the lead up to the tournament the big talk was about hooligans and if it’s safe for fans to come or not. But for the most part there were few incidents in the major tourist areas.