Poland, Greece: Group A’s dark horses

By Manesh Upadhyaya

The first installment of Manesh Upadhyaya’s weekly pieces previewing each team competing in UEFA Euro 2012.

The countdown to the 2012 UEFA European Championships has begun. Rosters are yet to be set and England doesn’t even have a full-time coach. But before the dust settles let’s take a look at two teams from Group A.

Group: A
Manager: Franciszek Smuda
Schedule: Poland vs. Greece on Friday, June 8
                Poland vs. Russia on Tuesday, June 12
                Czech Republic vs. Poland on Saturday, June 16

Poland qualified automatically for the finals as co-host of the competition. Prior to the 2008 tournament, the Poles never made it to a European Championship. It’s a shame they could not replicate their World Cup pedigree, reaching seven tournaments and finishing third in 1974 and 1982.

They take on Greece on June 8, followed by games against Russia and the Czech Republic to round off Group A.

Poland’s man to watch for is Robert Lewandowski, who plies his trade at German Bundesliga side, Borussia Dortmund. Poland manager Franciszek Smuda must be hoping the 23-year-old forward won’t get cold feet and carry his club form onto the international stage. Lewandowski scored 25 goals in all competitions this season and is in third place in the Bundesliga scoring chart.

His Dortmund teammates, Jakub Blaszczykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek will most likely be accompanying the youngster at the finals. This can only be good for the White Eagles. The familiarity and fluidity they bring will aid the team in transition from defense to offense. Piszczek is part of a rock-solid defense that only conceded 23 goals in 31 league games and Blaszczykowski has bagged 9 assists – third in the Bundesliga. As a direct result, Dortmund look down from the league summit with a nine-point cushion over trailers Bayern Munich.

Poland is known for producing top-class goalkeepers like Jerzy Dudek, formerly of Liverpool and Real Madrid, Fiorentina goalie Artur Boruc and Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny. Boruc was between the posts for the 2008 finals, but saw his team exit the competition at the group stage. Arsenal’s Szczesny, whose performances have revived the Gunners season, will be aiming to do better, especially on home soil.

Final Verdict
The team is unbeaten in eight of its last 10 games, including a 2-1 win over a much-depleted Argentina squad and a notable 2-2 draw against Germany. Though, as much as I like an underdog, I just don’t see Poland getting out of its group. The Czech’s, Russians and Greeks are much more organized and a FIFA world ranking of 65 doesn’t help either. Smuda’s men will have a lot of work to do if they want to defy the odds set against them.

Group: A
Manager: Fernando Santos
Schedule: Poland vs. Greece on Friday, June 8
                Greece vs. Czech Republic on Tuesday, June 12
                Greece vs. Russia on Saturday, June 16

Nobody can forget Greece’s 1-0 win against Portugal in the Euro 2004 final. The question is, can the Galanolefki replicate the feat eight years on?

Greece faces the Poles in the tourney’s opener, then takes on the Czechs and finally the Russians.

The squad heads into the championships buoyed by the news of manager Fernando Santos extending his contract. Emerging from Otto Rehhagel’s shadow, Santos has managed to put his stamp on the team despite being in charge for less than two years and will carry on as head coach until the culmination of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

His philosophy of ‘you play as well as you train’ is paying off. Greece went undefeated in qualifying, topping Group F with seven wins and three draws. However, his strikers simply cannot score.

Six forwards were used in qualifying and they yielded only four goals. Not one striker managed to score more than once. The defense picked up the slack, scoring six times with Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Vassilis Torossidis bagging two each.

Aside from its goal-scoring efforts, the Greek back line is also a force to be reckoned with, conceding only five goals. A rock-solid defense is what won them the trophy in 2004 and it will be key in guiding them safe passage to the knockout round as long as Santos’ strikers come to life.

Their stand out man is Sotiris Ninis. The 19-year-old is registered as a defender for his country, but serves as a creative midfielder and winger for club team Panathinaikos. He scored a spectacular goal against Israel in a September qualifier and possesses a wide range of vision, lightning pace and can score from anywhere. He’s definitely Santos’ danger man.

Final Verdict
I want to see the Greeks do well, but their lack of scoring up front does not bode well. If you want to win a competition you need to have goal scorers and for me, the former champs just don’t have that. Unless they can produce a miracle as they did under ‘King Otto’ in Portugal, I predict them hitting a familiar stumbling block at the group stage.

Manesh Upadhyaya can be reached at maneshupadhyaya@gmail.com or on Twitter @ManeshUPADHYAYA