World Cup 2018: Could Poland surprise people this year?
In a group with no clear favourite, the Polish have a chance to make their return to the World Cup a memorable one.
Returning to the world’s grandest football stage for the first time in 12 years might be enough to satisfy some nations. But that’s not the case with Poland – and it shouldn’t be.
A run to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 and an 8-1-1 record in World Cup qualifying helped the Poles – along with some of their own cleverness – to a top-eight world ranking in a system that’s just been refurbished.
Regardless, Poland feels good heading to Russia, where they’re grouped with 2014 World Cup darlings Colombia, a potentially potent Senegal and a possible dark horse in Japan.
Add in that Robert Lewandowski (16 goals in qualification) is among the top strikers in the world and the Poles have reason to feel confident even if pundits don’t think they have the overall makeup to survive past the Round of 16 or even get out of Group H.
The Polish, however, have a great opportunity to prove their worth in Russia.
More than one man
Much of the pre-tournament comments surrounding Poland have revolved around whether Lewandowski, whose 29 goals led Bayern Munich this season, alone is enough to bring the White and Reds back to the glory days of third-place World Cup finishes in 1974 and 1982.
If not, then who will step up to compliment their productive captain?
Contrary to his stellar performance in qualifying and the fact he scored four times in the three friendlies leading up to the World Cup, Lewandowski is not Superman.
He needs help considering Poland’s most concerning performance during qualification was a 4-0 loss to fellow World Cup participant Denmark.
So where will that help come from?
Napoli’s Piotr Zieliński and Kamil Grosicki are two obvious choices. Blossoming into more than a playmaker, Grosicki had three goals to go with three assists in qualification.
An all-purpose talent, Zielinski scored in back-to-back friendlies before coming off the bench in a 4-0 victory over Lithuania on Tuesday.
At ages 23 and 24, respectively, midfielder Karol Linetty and forward Arkadiusz Milik are the future of the national team. Linetty gets overshadowed by Zielinski and Grosicki, but his rapport with Lewandowski is building. Milik scored five domestic goals in limited action with Napoli this season and should be counted on to provide depth in Russia.
Defender Kamil Glik suffered a freakish shoulder injury but reportedly will return by the end of group play, so in the meantime, seasoned veterans Michal Pazdan, 30, and Lukasz Piszczek, 33, will be counted on to bring the back end together.
After allowing four goals in friendlies with South Korea and Chile, Poland clamped down to dominate over-matched Lithuania in their final World Cup tune-up.
There for the taking
Poland may have earned a World Cup place. However, the parity within Group H also means Biało-czerwoni, like the others, have little room for error and must keep their focus high, especially with Senegal and Colombia in their first two matches. But winning the group should still be Poland’s goal.
Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez helped Colombia reach the quarterfinals in 2014, but his form has slipped some since and Los Cafertoros registered an unimpressive 3-5-2 mark in qualifying.
How Colombia’s talented back-end handles Poland’s potent attack will be one of the key battles to watch when the teams meet June 24.
Liverpool’s Sadio Mané leads a Senegal attack that produced 17 goals in qualification but the nation is making just their second World Cup appearance. The first in 2002 produced a quarterfinal run, but that was a long time ago. They went only 1-3-1 in 2018 friendlies.
Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa leads the way for Japan, who are making their sixth straight World Cup appearance. But depth remains an issue for a nation that managed two goals while failing to make it out of the group stage in 2014. Japan’s lone victory in their last eight friendlies came in a 4-2 over Paraguay on Tuesday.
If Poland play within their capabilities and don’t become their own worst enemy, then a spot in the Round of 16 should be a given. But they are good enough to win the group, and perhaps even more.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.