After missing out on the 2014 World Cup, Poland return for their third European Championship in succession. The minimum expectation is to progress from the group stage of a major competition for the first time in 30 years.
The White Eagles head to France on the back of one of the most successful qualifying campaigns in their history, which included a first ever win over neighbours Germany. They’ve since followed it up with impressive friendly victories over fellow qualifiers Iceland and the Czech Republic.
Is this really a new Golden Generation?
Historically, the Euros haven’t proved a happy hunting ground for Poland. In their two previous appearances the Bialo-Czerwoni have failed to record a single victory, claiming just two points on home soil in 2012 and only one in Austria and Switzerland four years earlier.
However, there is an emerging confidence that this year will be different. Some say that the class of 2016 could be the best since Jerzy Engel led Poland to the 2002 World Cup, but optimists will look even further back – to the teams that finished third in the 1974 and 1982 World Cups – to draw their comparisons.
On paper, it’s hard not to be excited about this squad. Not since the days of Boniek, Lato and Deyna has a Polish selection contained such sought-after names. In Robert Lewandowski they have one of the greatest players in the world, while Arkadiusz Milik, Kamil Glik and Grzegorz Krychowiak have received admiring glances from some of the continent's top clubs.
However, their legacy should be defined only by their results. While the Poles' target for the tournament will be to reach the quarter-finals, Adam Nawalka’s charges would need to progress even further to earn comparisons with those famous teams of the ’70s and ’80s.
What they’ve learned
After being drawn into the toughest group of Euro 2016 qualifying, Poland exceeded almost all expectations. Victories against Gibraltar (by seven-goal margins in both fixtures) and Georgia (just the four-goal margin each time) showed they had learned to guard against complacency, while two draws against Scotland proved they had acquired the ability to fight when going behind. When the Germans came to Warsaw, Joachim Low’s men faced a team that had learned how to battle like lions. When the Irish arrived, they met a team who had found out how to cope with pressure.
But of all the positives, surely the biggest lesson Poland have learned in the last two years is that they should no longer fear anyone.
Lewy leads the way (but it's not just about him)
Undoubtedly the Poles' biggest threat lies in its attack, spearheaded by Bayern Munich star Lewandowski. He and his Ajax-based strike partner Milik netted 66 club goals between them in 2015/16 – a whopping 51 of them in their respective leagues – while their 19-goal partnership in Euro 2016 qualifying was at least six better than any other duo.
In previous years, stopping Lewandowski had generally been enough to stop Poland, but the emergence of 22-year-old Milik has meant that opponents now have two threats to contain. Attempts to double up on the former allow Milik the space to cause havoc, while a failure to concentrate on Lewandowski... well, we know what happens.
But how about trying to stop both of them? Even if opposition sides are successful in doing that, Poland have a host of other players capable of finding the net. Only Switzerland (14) and Spain (12) had a larger pool of players contribute goals during qualifying than Poland's 11, while a total of 33 goals from 10 games ensured they progressed to the finals as the most prolific scorers on the continent – two ahead of nearest challengers England. Thanks, Gibraltar.
Stop flying, full-backs
Although Poland’s backline can’t exactly be classed as leaky, the 10 goals it allowed during qualifying amounted to the second-highest total of all the teams that reached the finals in France.
The left-back position has long been a bone of contention for whoever is in charge of the national team – and while Nawalka had managed to remedy it by pulling winger Maciej Rybus into the backline, the 27-year-old has been ruled out of the tournament with a shoulder injury. Backup Jakub Wawrzyniak has also been nursing an knock, making right-sided Artur Jedrzejczyk favourite to line up for the opener against Northern Ireland. On the opposite flank, meanwhile, Lukasz Piszczek’s form has been temperamental to the point where a player regarded as one of Poland's best could now be perceived as a possible weak link.
Nawalka also has a question mark over who will partner Torino's Glik in the heart of defence, after Lukasz Szukala – his partner for the majority of the qualifying campaign – was left out of the squad following a transfer to Turkish club Osmanlispor. In his place, Nawalka will lean towards either Cagliari's Bartosz Salamon or Legia Warsaw's Michal Pazdan, both of whom have limited international experience.
Lewandowski and Milik will grab the headlines should Poland's tournament go to plan, but Rennes winger Grosicki, playing slightly behind them, has been playing some of the best football of his career in the white and red of his national team. Quick, skilful and with an eye for goal, he is the outlet that Poland’s midfield will look for as they attempt to break forward with haste.
After moving abroad in 2011 aged just 21, Grosicki endured an average spell in Turkey with Sivasspor, before heading to France three years later. Nawalka soon promoted him from bit-part player to integral starter in time for the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and it was only then that Grosicki truly came to prominence in his homeland. Starting nine of the Poles' 10 games and scoring four times, the winger also chipped in with four assists. Another four goals in four friendly games since indicate that he is stepping up a gear at just the right time.
Jakub Blaszczykowski’s return midway through qualifying meant that Nawalka switched Grosicki from right wing to left in order to accommodate both, and it worked to great effect. He’s now able to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, and gives the Poles yet another lethal weapon in their armoury.
After a dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, the Polish FA appointed Nawalka to inspire a team lacking confidence – and despite many fans having reservations over his credentials, it paid off.
A veteran of the ‘78 World Cup squad, Nawalka saw his managerial stock rise first with Wisla Krakow, then cash-strapped Gornik Zabrze, which led FA president Zgibniew Boniek to make his former team-mate boss in late 2013.
Unlike his two direct predecessors, Nawalka has found a balance between being too strict and being too soft, and hasn’t been afraid to make unpopular decisions. Players are selected on form, not reputation; fan favourite and former captain Blaszczykowski can testify to that, having been left out of the squad on his immediate return from injury.