Monday 11 December 2017

Ireland have to deal with passion of proud Polish nation

Arjkadiusz Milik of Poland takes on Grant Hanley of Scotland
Arjkadiusz Milik of Poland takes on Grant Hanley of Scotland
Poland coach Adam Nawalka

A cloak of silence has been thrown over the Poland team over the last couple of days.

And tomorrow night at the impressive-looking Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw, Adam Nawalka and his team will do their talking on the pitch, backed by 58,000 of their own fans, hoping to do what they have to do to earn straight passage to France next summer and skip the annoyance of the playoffs, with all the pitfalls. With a point rescued from Scotland on Thursday night thanks to Robert Lewandowski's injury-time equaliser, the Poles have breathed a sigh of relief that matters are still in their own hands: beat Ireland, or hold them to a 1-1 draw, and they're off to France. Lose and this team, their best of a generation, could fall asunder.

Lewandowski's form (14 goals in the last five games), is breathtaking but Polish football has taken a deep breath as France, as well as an Irish-influenced precipice of oblivion, both loom into view.

Zbigniew Boniek, the greatest Polish player of all time and the man in charge of their Football Association, made it clear on the route between Glasgow and Warsaw that things were now deadly serious. Hours after the game he used his twitter account to tweet a "sorry" to journalists for the fact that the players were taking a media silence as they wanted full concentration on the job in hand. "Together with 58,000 [fans] we are fighting to get to France" he said and with that he pulled down the shutters.

No one is that bothered about quotes from their second-choice goalkeeper, What matters most to them is the form of their captain, talisman and main man, Lewandowski.


"Our happiness is called Lewandowski," trumpeted the main sports newspaper here on the day after the Scotland draw. Because to get to France, the Poles need the Bayern Munich man on form.

They are not without their issues: just as Ireland lost Shay Given in the win over Germany, Poland's point in Scotland was also costly as Arkadiusz Milik and Maciej Rybus both picked up knocks and are doubts.

They can be replaced, but Lewandowski cannot. They are not a just a one-man team but unlike Ireland, who have group effort and hard work at the core of a squad which can see Robbie Keane and Shane Long dropped to the bench without a worry for the manager, they will struggle if he is off form or not in the game.

Poland is at the heart of Europe - if you really want to annoy a Pole, ask them about living in 'eastern Europe' as they dislike that term and prefer 'central Europe' instead as eastern Europe is where Russians live.

But the European Championships have not been a happy home for their football team. The side which thrilled the nation with two third-place finishes at the World Cup finals in 1974 and 1982 struggled in the Euros and, apart from the 2012 tournament when they qualified as co-hosts, Poland have only ever managed qualification for the Euros once in 2008.

Back then, a poor Polish side played poorly, getting just one point from three games.


At Euro 2012 they also finished bottom of their group at the finals.

But the crop of players which is aiming for France 2016 is different. They have, for the first time in three decades, a truly world class player in Lewandowski, a worthy heir of Boniek's mantle.

They have a decent choice of keepers (Lukasz Fabianski is just ahead of his rivals), an under-rated central defender in the Italian-based Kamil Glik, a midfielder of real quality in Seville's Europa League winner Grzegorz Krychowiak and in Ajax forward Arkadiusz Milik, a player who could go on to better things.

Are the better than Ireland? They have individuals who trump anything that Martin O'Neill can pick from, and any nation on earth would love to have a man like Lewandowski available.

If the Irish defence can keep the man who the locals simply call 'Lewy' quiet, then the boys in green can be in clover tomorrow. Best not to think about what an on-form and unmarked Lewandowski can do.

Poland v Ireland LIVE TOMORROW, RTE2 (KO 7.45)

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