Poland makes another early exit from Euros
It was supposed to be different this time for Poland.
Playing in front of their home fans, the Poles expected to at least reach the quarterfinals of the European Championship. Instead, their campaign came to an all-too-familiar crashing halt - winless, last in the group and searching for answers.
Poland showed moments of promise at the tournament, dominating Greece in the first half of their opening match and controlling play for long stretches against Russia. But the team's lack of consistency proved to be its undoing in 1-1 draws in both matches.
Needing a win Saturday against the Czech Republic - weakened by the absence of captain Tomas Rosicky - to secure a place in the quarterfinals, the Poles played their worst match of the competition, losing 1-0.
''It seems to me that the small mistakes, the nuances, decided that we didn't advance,'' said striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored the tournament's opening goal against Greece. ''We can sit here and go on and on about what could have been if we hadn't made the mistakes we did. I think we gave it our all. We wanted the best. The fans were with us.''
After a winless Euro debut in 2008, Poland's red-and-white clad supporters were hopeful that this year a team led by three stars from Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund - Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek - could bring the country its first ever win at a European Championship and a spot in the quarterfinals.
The Dortmund trio didn't disappoint: Lewandowski scored with a header against Greece and Blaszczykowski with a perfectly struck left-footed drive against Russia. But those three players were not enough to propel the team even out of Group A, which was widely considered the weakest in the tournament.
Coach Franciszek Smuda played Lewandowski as a sole striker, and all too often he was left alone against two or even three defenders. After proving a handful for Russia and Greece, Lewandowski had very few touches against the Czechs - something he'd complained of earlier in the tournament - and struggled to link up with the midfield.
Smuda, who brought the second-youngest team to the tournament, said following the loss to the Czech Republic that his time with the national team has come to an end. His contract was due to expire at the end of Euro 2012.
Whoever the Polish Football Association hires as his replacement will still have the same core group of talent to base the team around. Blaszczykowski, the captain and heart of the team, is only 26, while Lewandowski is just 23 and Piszczek 27.
The country also has two solid young goalkeepers - Arsenal's 22-year-old Wojciech Szczesny and 25-year-old Przemyslaw Tyton of PSV. Tyton came on to save a penalty against Greece after Szczesny received a red card for a foul in the box, and played well in the next two matches to prove his worth.
After early exits at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and at Euro 2008, Poland's supporters were hugely disappointed to exit at the group stage again this year. But the players, who appeared at Warsaw's fan zone Sunday to thank the fans for their support, are still smarting from this loss, yet also looking to the future.
''We're going to move forward. We have World Cup qualifying coming up, and what we've built here we can't let fall apart, all the more because we definitely have potential,'' Lewandowski said. ''We'll be a much better team in World Cup qualifying than we were here.''
Poland's fans are hoping that's the case.