Road to the Finals
Poland have reached the finals of the European Championship for the first time in their history, an achievement that has been long coming seeing as they have appeared in numerous World Cup finals. Their inclusion in the tournament comes on the back of a stunning qualification display, where they managed to put in some memorable performances in Group A to beat Portugal to the top spot.
A 3-1 loss at home to Finland in September 2006 was a pretty miserable start to proceedings, and it seemed as if the fans were bracing themselves for another disappointing campaign. A home draw against Serbia four days later did nothing to lift the doubts, and one point out of six was all that they had managed to muster.
A 1-0 win against Kazakhstan at least gave them their first victory of the campaign, but as one of the weakest teams in the group this was nothing more than was expected.
But the real turnaround of the Poles’ campaign came in the following match four days later, a 2-1 home win against favourites Portugal. It was an unexpected result, but two goals from Ebi Smolarek made Gomes’s late effort redundant and the team began to realise that qualification was still well within their grasp. It was the start of great things for the Polish team, and from here on in they never looked back.
They won their next four games against Belgium, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Azerbaijan again, meaning that they had enjoyed a run of six victories on the trot. It completely changed their fortunes, and meant that they were well on their way to qualification for EURO 2008.
However, four days after their last victory in this string of successes, they faced a setback when they lost to Armenia 1-0 in the away leg. It put a dent in their hopes, with Portugal and Finland both still looking strong.
September was a tough month, as they had to play both of their main rivals away from home. First they journeyed to Lisbon to see if they could repeat the same feat as the previous year and get another upset, but they were held to a 2-2 draw.
A 0-0 away draw with Finland followed a few days later, and although it still looked close between the top three teams, they had at least managed to take points off of their main rivals at their home grounds.
In the end it proved enough, and when they went on to beat Kazakhstan 3-1 at home and then Belgium 2-0 at home, with all five goals coming from Smolarek, they ensured qualification for the first time in their history. With qualification guaranteed, a 2-2 draw against Serbia was all they needed qualify one point above Portugal and take a surprise top spot in the group.
Beenhakker became the coach of Poland in July 2006 after guiding Trinidad & Tobago to the World Cup finals, and he has now achieved another success by taking them to their first ever European Championship finals.
Taking up coaching at a young age, he first became an assistant at Dutch side Go Ahead Eagles in 1967. BV Veendam was his first proper coaching job, and in 1979 he became Head Coach at AFC Ajax, with whom he won the Dutch title.
His first international post came for the Netherlands in 1985, but he left early to go back to club management, taking charge at Real Madrid, who he guided to three Primera División titles.
He then went onto another stint with the Netherlands national team, taking them to the second round of the 1990 World Cup, before going off to manage a number of teams around the world. It wasn’t until he joined Trinidad & Tobago in May 2005 and took them to the World Cup that he caught the eyes of the Polish national team, and he has proved his credentials in making another historic victory by ensuring their qualification.
Ones to watch
Euzebiusz Smolarek – Striker
Although he has been with the national team since 2002, it is only in this recent campaign that he has begun to shine, managing to score nine goals throughout qualification, and many of those crucial ones at that. He was in the squad in the 2006 World Cup, so is not new to international competition, but he was not on fire throughout the tournament and failed to score any goals. The team will certainly be relying on him to provide the goods if they are to get through their group, and his form at the moment suggests that he will be up for the challenge.
Maciej Żurawski – striker
The Polish captain has a huge presence on the pitch, and it was his experience and guidance that proved so crucial during qualification. He has made over 60 caps for his country, and has scored 16 goals so far, but his leadership skills are what make him so fundamental to the setup. He was a hero at Celtic during his time there, getting the nickname ‘Magic Żurawski’ for his creative style of play. During qualification, he played in nearly all of the qualifying matches, and scored a goal against Armenia.
Artur Boruc – goalkeeper
The Celtic goalkeeper, who has been nominated for a number of awards with his club, has become the number one choice for the Polish national side, replacing the previous out-of-form keeper Jerzey Dudek. He made nine appearances during qualification, letting in five goals in the process to guarantee him the top spot. Having played in the national squad in the 2006 World Cup, he is still relatively new to the team, but at only 28 years old he has many years left as a keeper, and he will be hoping that his performance at the upcoming competition will be enough to help him keep his spot.
Poland will be looking for a strong showing at the finals, and by winning their group they have proved that they can achieve this. Germany and Croatia will provide a tough challenge for them, and with Austria also playing in their first tournament with a home advantage they may not be as easy to beat as it is being suggested.
They will be hoping that their key players stay fit, most notably the goal-machine Smolarek, and if so then they look a solid team with a good outside chance of causing a major upset at the competition.
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