Jakub Blaszczykowski and Poland must move on from shootout woe
Poland were left heartbroken in the quarterfinals as Jakub Blaszczykowski missed a crucial penalty in their shootout defeat to Portugal.
However, it was still a strong tournament from Adam Nwalka's men, who now must regroup ahead of World Cup qualifying. Here's a look back at Poland's exploits in France.
At a glance
The flight home to Warsaw was tinged with disappointment following a quarterfinal shootout defeat to Portugal, but Nwalka's men achieved their targets and every player returned with their heads held high.
Euro 2016 was a tournament of many highs for Poland. The hard-fought opening victory against Northern Ireland and the battling goalless draw against neighbouring Germany were two of the biggest. However, nothing came close to matching the penalty shootout triumph over Switzerland -- the Biale-Orly's first ever knockout victory at a major tournament.
After a first half which saw the Poles play arguably their best football of the competition, they were pegged back by Xherdan Shaqiri's wonder strike, and it would have been easy for heads to drop. And though under continued pressure throughout the second half and extra time, it seemed there would be only one outcome when it went to penalties as Poland held their nerve.
Despite failing to score in 390 minutes of football, Robert Lewandowski was calm and composed as he expertly fired into the top right-hand corner. Up followed Arkadiusz Milik, Kamil Glik and Blaszczykowski -- each of their penalties better than the last. When midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak stepped up to take the deciding kick, there was no doubt as to who would advance. As the net bulged, the crowd roared and the Polish party in Saint-Etienne continued long into the night.
It may be an obvious choice, but in a tournament where Nawalka's charges returned to Poland with their heads held high, their eventual elimination was always going to be the lowest point. What goes around may come around, but after defeating Switzerland on penalties just five days earlier, it doesn't make the defeat to Portugal in the same manner any easier to swallow.
It was an undeserved end to the tournament for "Kuba" Blaszczykowski, who had been a key player for Poland throughout their three weeks in France.
Maybe Poland hadn't done enough to deserve to win the game in 120 minutes, but they certainly didn't deserve to suffer defeat either. They had defended resolutely and attacked with intent but like so often in this tournament, they were left frustrated by a lack of potency in front of goal.
Even with their star man Lewandowski not at the top of his game, Poland were a match for every team that they faced. When the dust settles and the team look back on their tournament, this is where they should take solace.
Several players could quite easily have found themselves named as the Poles' best performer -- Glik and Michal Pazdan for their impressive defensive displays and Blaszczykowski for his consistency and attacking threat. But in the end, nobody came close to defensive midfielder Krychowiak.
Coming into the tournament with fears over his fitness, Krychowiak put any doubts to bed early on with a man of the match performance against Northern Ireland. He then went on to earn similar plaudits against world champions Germany, snuffing out the threat of Mesut Ozil. He repeated the trick again in the quarterfinal, helping to nullify Cristiano Ronaldo.
It wasn't just in defence where he proved one of Poland's key assets, but in attack too. Collecting the ball in deep-lying areas, he surged forward with consummate ease, while his range of passing helped to carve numerous openings for both the wingers and strikers. It is no wonder that Paris St Germain are willing to pay big money to secure his signature this summer.
Poland entered the competition having taken one major lesson from qualifying, and the performance in France can only serve to consolidate that -- they have no reason to fear anyone. They didn't fear their biggest rivals Germany, and were it not for some poor finishing, could have defeated them comfortably. They didn't fear Switzerland or Portugal either, and looked more than a match for teams ranked 12 and 19 places above them respectively.
Many Poles also should have learned that their national league, the Ekstraklasa, is perhaps of a slightly better standard than they might have thought. Often criticised by Polish football fans, who tend to shun it in favour of the bigger leagues in Europe, a number of the Biale-Orly's better performing players ply their trade in their domestic competition. Legia Warsaw's impressive defensive duo Pazdan and Artur Jedrzejczyk, Wisla Krakow's consistent -- if unspectacular -- midfielder Krzysztof Maczynski and promising Cracovia teenager Bartosz Kapustka all return back to Poland with much credit.
The Polish Football Association can be assured that in Nawalka, they have the right man to lead this team towards the 2018 World Cup.
He has built a positive atmosphere around the squad, which in previous years had looked fractured. Poland's current crop is the strongest in a generation.
Ryan Hubbard is ESPN FC's Poland blogger at Euro 2016. Twitter: @Ryan_Hubbard