WARSAW (Reuters) - If Poland are to progress beyond the group stages at the European Championship for the first time, their top strikers Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik must provide the inspiration so obviously lacking when they crashed out of Euro 2012, the tournament they co-hosted with Ukraine.
On that occasion they finished bottom of their group and now, as the lowest-ranked team in Euro 2016 Group C, they will have to be at their best to make it through a pool clouded by clashes against traditional rivals Germany and Ukraine.
Poland FA chief Zbigniew Boniek, one of the country’s greatest players, revels in the underdog status that does not altogether equate with a team who impressed in qualifying for what will be their third straight European Championship finals.
Ranked 27th in the world by FIFA, Poland are one spot below group rivals and European Championship newcomers Northern Ireland, with Ukraine at 22 and Germany at number five.
“Tyson Fury was ranked worse than Vladimir Klitschko but he still won that fight,” Boniek told Reuters, referring to Fury’s stunning snatch of the world heavyweight boxing crown last year.
“Our minimum task is to qualify from the group stage and this is what we discuss with the boys,” he added. “We want to put our mark on this tournament so that people will remember us.”
If they do, much of the credit will go to manager Adam Nawalka, the 58-year-old former international, who has seen them lose just three of 23 games under his tenure.
“Our biggest advantage is unpredictability in the offensive part of the game,” Boniek said.
“There’s also our inner serenity. We take pleasure in the game, never feel any pressure,” the former Juventus star added.
Leading the line will be the Bundesliga’s leading scorer Lewandowski, who has scored 47 times for Bayern Munich this season, and Ajax Amsterdam striker Milik, who has netted 24.
On paper the two look to be one of the tournament’s most lethal striking partnerships, powering Poland to the finals with 19 goals.
Even that was not enough to top the group, however, and Poland finished behind Germany despite beating them for the first time, a result that suggests that the traditional gap between neighbours is narrowing.
“Take Germany, how many stars can you count there?” asked Boniek. “I would argue whether they have more than our team. Even among strikers: (Bayern forward) Thomas Muller is a very dangerous player but does not have such class as Lewandowski.”
Reporting by Jakub Iglewski, Piotr Kwitkowski and Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Neil Robinson