FOX Soccer Exclusive
Euro 2012, preview: Poland, Ukraine
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It has been four decades since Poland could count itself among the top four in world football and 26 years since Zbigniew Boniek led his country to the 1986 World Cup semifinals in Mexico.
When the Poles won the right to co-host this tournament, most of the major powers were gleeful: it was thought that they were pushovers. They are not. That is thanks, in large part, to two foreign coaches — Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp — Poland are a team that could ride their home support into the late rounds.
Wenger's persistence in the face of sometimes withering criticism enabled Wojciech Szczesny to emerge as a world-class goalkeeper. He is now the rock that anchors the Poland defense, and a far cry from the man who gift-wrapped the Carling Cup for Birmingham City two seasons ago.
Indeed, one of the main reasons Arsenal is in the next Champions League is down to Szczesny, who has proven that it is possible to play the position even without defenders in front of you. He has grown in confidence with every big save, and he has also learned to keep his emotions under control as his supposed helpers produced one gaffe after another.
That will be important in Euro 2012 because he must steady a defense that will sometimes be stretched: Poland's best chance to shine in this tournament is to take the attack forward, and the defense is not loaded with European superstars.
That's where Klopp's Borussia Dortmund trio comes in. The lineup: fullback Lukasz Pisczek, midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and striker Robert Lewandowski; not only are they three of the best in Europe, they are also already teammates. Polish boss Franciszek Smuda is in the happy position of being able to tell them to play their own game as they already operate successfully as a trio at Dortmund. That should transfer nicely to the national team.
Pisczek is a powerhouse attacking back with the gifts of knowing when to come up the right flank, and the ability to put crosses right where Lewandowski likes them. Blaszczykowsi — known in Germany simply as “Kuba” — is a midfielder at home on either side of the ball but is especially good at forming the triangle with Pisczek that ultimately frees Lewandowksi.
Any team facing the Poles must pack its own left side to prevent that trio — especially when Kuba is in top form — from dominating possession and the match tempo. But it is not simply a case of shutting off the service to Lewandowski, as Artur Sobiech (Hannover 96) is a very good finisher in his own right.
The Poles, though, may leave Lewandowski as a lone front-runner with five in the midfield. Smuda started Rafal Murawski, Ludovic Obraniak, Eugen Polanski and Maciej Rybus next to Kuba in the friendly win over Slovakia when the coach tested what is thought to be his favorite alignment.
While playing the host role can sometimes be a burden, Poland did get what is thought of as a favorable opening round draw against Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic, in that order. None of the rivals is easy, but there isn't a Euro 2012 favorite among them, either.
If their quartet of stars comes through, Polish fans will have every right to anticipate a major quarterfinal showdown against Germany, Holland or Portugal. That's when the home advantage might really mean something.
Ukraine are a different matter, and it is more than ironic that when Ukrainian football was at its best, their squad played without a national jersey.
As far back as the 1976 Olympic Games, the then-Soviet Union sent Dynamo Kiev to Montreal as the "national team." For the next two decades, a rolodex of star Ukrainian players wore the red and white of the old USSR. These essentially Ukrainian squads were then often thought to be Russian by Westerners.
One of the best of those was Oleh Blokhin, now the coach of Ukraine. And he has a problem: he doesn’t have a lot to work with.
The heart of the matter is the absence of an experienced goalkeeper. Veteran Olexandr Shovkovskiy, of Dynamo Kiev, was expected to start but was injured in the final game of the regular Ukrainian league season and will miss the tournament completely. To make matters worse, the Shakhtar Donetsk star Olexandr Rybka failed a drug test and is also unavailable.
As a result, Andiry Pyatov is expected to step in, basically by virtue of being the last guy standing. (Dynamo Kiev's Maxym Koval’s international "experience" amounts to participating in one national team training camp; Olexander Hoianinov, from Metalist, has exactly one cap.)
Probably the best-known member of the squad is Bayern Munich back-up Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, notable as well for playing his football outside Ukraine. Almost all of the roster is home-based, which is hardly a major endorsement in a Ukrainian league where the top sides rely on imported talent to score goals. He is the only man to ply his trade outside of Eastern Europe.
Veterans Andriy Voronin (FC Dynamo Moscow) and Andriy Shevchenko (Dynamo Kiev) are still considered viable attack leaders, testimony to the paucity of emerging talent. Voronin is 32, Shevchenko, 35. As Euro 2012 kicks off, Shevchenko remains his country's most successful international marksman.
Much of the midfield will be based on Dynamo Kiev’s talent, while Shakhtar contributes three defenders to the possible starting eleven.
In a group with England, France and Sweden, Ukraine will be hard pressed to get out of the opening stage, although they will likely try to keep it tight and hope for a counter-attacking breakthrough.
The final, of course, will be played in Kiev on July 1. It's highly unlikely that the home team will be anywhere near it.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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