Poland eager to show they're more than red-hot Robert Lewandowski
The 2018 World Cup is just over a month away, and all 32 teams are preparing in earnest for their shot at the trophy in Russia. ESPN FC is previewing every team ahead of the opening game on June 14. Find all 32 teams here.
Who they are
Captain: Robert Lewandowski
Manager: Adam Nawalka
Nickname: The Eagles
FIFA Rank (as of April 12, 2018): 10
How they qualified
Poland easily finished top of the relatively comfortable UEFA Group E, winning eight out of 10 fixtures against Denmark, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan, even though their 4-0 defeat in Copenhagen was painful. They scored 28 goals, 16 of them coming from star striker Robert Lewandowski. The captain netted hat tricks in key home wins against Romania and Denmark, and their qualification was never really in doubt.
Lewandowski finished as European qualifying's top scorer, and Bayern Munich's superstar would definitely be the main weapon in Russia. The Poles are much more than just one striker, though. Coach Adam Nawalka is a popular specialist who is building on a major success at Euro 2016, where Poles reached the quarterfinals and exited only on penalties. They have a solid backbone of experienced leaders, including centre-back Kamil Glik, defender Lukasz Piszczek and midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak, who are ably complemented by rising young stars like Piotr Zielinski and Karol Linetty. It is a very promising blend that could possibly develop into worthy successors to the majestic Poland teams of the 1970s and '80s that were considered some of the best in the world.
Some of the key players didn't have a good club season, which is especially true of Krychowiak who wasn't even a certain starter at West Brom. Arkadiusz Milik barely featured at Napoli after yet another significant injury setback, Kuba Blaszczykowski was injured for most of the season at Wolfsburg, Kamil Grosicki went astray at Hull City, while Wojciech Szczesny spent the season as a bench-warmer behind Gianluigi Buffon at Juventus. Even Lewandowski came under pressure at Bayern Munich for failing to prove his worth in the Champions League. Nawalka needs all of his stars in top form in a difficult group, and Poland might be in trouble if many of them underperform. Finding the right balance in midfield between Krychowiak and Zielinski is another major issue.
Robert Lewandowski probably could be considered the greatest-ever Polish footballer already, but he needs a major achievement with the national team to cement his place in history. He is Poland's most prolific player of all time, overtaking Wlodzimierz Lubanski with 52 goals in 93 matches. His form for Bayern was magnificent, with 39 goals in all competitions, but his leadership qualities will come under the spotlight in Russia. Lewandowski had a relatively quiet tournament at Euro 2016, scoring just once, and must be much more efficient at the World Cup if Poland are to go far and become the dark horses.
What the local media says
"The hope is to reach the quarterfinals, like at Euro 2016, and that target was set by the coach at the start of the qualification campaign. The current generation has what it takes to get there, with some of the players seeing the World Cup as the peak of their international careers. They would also love to prove that they are not a one-man team. The first game against Senegal is the most important. If we win, things will get real. If we lose, everything will be complicated. Group G is very even, and any team can finish top or bottom. Fans are optimistic because we are going to Russia focused and result-oriented." -- Michal Zachodny, journalist for Laczy Nas Pilka
What the stats say
If everything clicks, Poland can be a dark horse and go very far, because they have the right ingredients and a good balance. On the other hand, their rivals in Group H -- especially Senegal and Colombia -- are extremely dangerous, and the adventure could easily end after just three fixtures. It really could go either way. If one absolutely must to make a prediction, though, let us settle for a place in the quarterfinals.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced international football journalist who writes for ESPN, Blizzard, Guardian and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @yokhin.