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May 15, 2008

Poland: Finally into the finals

Congratulations to 65-year-old Dutchman Leo Beenhakker who marked his fifth decade as a coach by guiding Poland to the finals of the European Championships for the first time in their history.

A remarkable achievement in its own right but even more impressive when one considers that the Poles qualified for Euro 2008 from the largest qualifying group in pole position (no pun intended) and with a game to spare.

It was a case of 13th time lucky for Poland who have taken part in each and every European Championship qualifying phase from the inaugural 1960 event onwards; the closest they ever came to reaching the finals was for the 1980 event in Italy when they finished just one point behind Group One's only qualifiers, the Netherlands.

In World Cup football Poland have a decent record, having qualifying for seven finals tournaments in all and finishing third at both the 1974 and 1982 events. But last time out at the 2006 World Cup in Germany the Poles were eliminated at end of the first group stage; despite a last game victory over Costa Rica as earlier defeats to Ecuador and Germany put paid to their chances.

So, when Beenhakker replaced Pawel Janas as Polish coach after the World Cup there was little pressure on him going into the Euro 2008 qualifiers thanks to the quality of opposition the Poles were to face in their qualifying group (Portugal, Finland and Serbia) and the relative strength of Bialo-czerwoni.

However, Beenhakker exceeded all expectations.

Despite concerns that his success at the 2006 World Cup with Trinidad & Tobago and increased profile might result in wage demands that would be unsustainable, Beenhakker topped the Polish FA's wanted list thanks largely to his vast experience.

As well as being in charge of the Dutch national team twice and Ajax three times, Beenhakker's CV also boasts spells in charge of Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid, Feyenoord, and the Saudi Arabia and Trinidad & Tobago national teams.

Once in place, Beenhakker's task of leading Poland to Euro 2008 got off to a bad start with a 3-1 home defeat to Finland and 1-1 home draw with Serbia.

Poland got back on track with a win over Kazakhstan before a stunning result in beating group favourites Portugal 2-1 at home. Four more wins followed before a Beenhakker's men were put to the sword in a surprise 1-0 defeat against Armenia.

Vital draws away to Portugal and Finland set up the chance to reach the finals in Austria and Switzerland if they could beat Belgium, which they duly did 2-0 and qualifying ended with a creditable 2-2 draw away to Serbia.

Such was the impact of Poland reaching the finals for the first time that the Polish president honoured Beenhakker with the Order of Polonia Restituta for outstanding achievements in sport.

So having reached the European Championships what chance do the Polish stand?

Well, having never reached the finals before, June marks a voyage into uncharted territory for Poland and looking at the strength of their playing squad and the calibre of opposition they will face in Group B (Austria, Croatia and Germany) it does not look good for them.

However, hope springs eternal as against all odds Beenhakker proved in qualifying that he has the alchemist's touch.

If Poland are to have any chance of reaching the quarter finals they will need to get to their final group game against Croatia on June 16th in Klagenfurt needing to win to progress at Croatia's expense. If one accepts that Germany are the strongest team in Group B and that Austria are the whipping boys then the battle for second place is between Poland and Croatia.

For both sides a win against lowly Austria is expected and defeat the most likely outcome against Germany, though Croatia might fancy their chances of getting a point or even three against Joachim Löw's side, which means for Poland the game against the Croats could prove vital.

With nine goals in qualification Racing Santander striker Euzebiusz Smolarek will lead the forward line with creative support being offered by Maciej Zurawski, currently plying his trade Larissa FC, who Beenhakker installed as captain of the side.

The coach favours an attacking formation, with 4-4-2 the most commonly used set-up, however Beenhakker insists on flexibility in his squad allowing him to swap to a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 as circumstances demand.

In each formation wing play is a key ingredient with the likes Jakub Blaszczykowski and Jacek Krzynówek adding attacking width to a midfield anchored by defensive players.

There was controversy in April when Brazilian-born left winger Roger Guerreiro was granted Polish citizenship in order that he be able to play in Beenhakker's national team.

He joined Legia Warsaw from Brazilian club Esporte Clube Juventude in 2006 and wasted little time on declaring his wish to play international football for Poland. Recognising his potential Beenhakker and the Polish FA saw to it that the application was speedily processed.

Between the sticks one could expect to see Manchester United reserve keeper Tomasz Kuszczak, but after deciding to drop former Liverpool player Jerzy Dudek, Beenhakker eventually plumped for Celtic stopper Artur Boruc.

Preparations for the European Championships got off to a great start in February with three notable wins from three games that month; 1-0 away to Finland, 2-0 away to Czech Republic and 2-0 at home over Estonia.

However, morale was hit in March when Poland were consigned to a dispiriting 3-0 home defeat in Krakow by the United States. After which Beenhakker insisted he saw 'no reason to lose the faith', despite the game representing the Pole's worst defeat since losing 5-1 at home to Denmark in 2004.

Three further friendly games are scheduled before the tournament, with Macedonia and Albania up first before a final warm-up game against Denmark in Chorzow on June 1, just a week before their Euro 2008 campaign begins against Germany on June 8 in Klagenfurt.


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