May 24, 2018 / 2:25 PM / in 5 months

Poland aim for rare group stage progress in Russia

(Reuters) - Poland will arrive in Russia aiming to get past the group stage at the World Cup for the first time in 32 years as they return to the finals after a 12-year absence.

Soccer Football - International Friendly - Poland vs South Korea - Silesian Stadium, Chorzow, Poland - March 27, 2018 Poland's Kamil Grosicki celebrates scoring their second goal with Robert Lewandowski REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The golden era for Poland, which saw them take third place at the 1974 and 1982 tournaments, ended when Brazil beat Poland 4-0 in the last 16 at the 1986 finals in Mexico.

Zbigniew Boniek, former Poland great and now FA president, famously said after the defeat that he had hoped the national team would qualify for the next four tournaments in a row.

His words were later dubbed ‘Boniek’s Curse’ as the Poles had to wait 16 years for another World Cup appearance.

They have played at only two finals this century and finished bottom of their group in 2002 and 2006.

However, at the 2016 European Championship they reached the quarter-finals to emulate their past success.

The nation is hoping that Adam Nawalka’s team can now reach the knockout phase on the world stage, although they have been drawn against Senegal, Columbia and Japan in a tricky Group H.

“The team is more experienced but can’t be overconfident,” goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek, who has 60 caps including two at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea, told Reuters.

“However, going into another round should be a realistic goal, albeit the group is very equal and we’re not used to games against such unusual opposition.

“The first game against Senegal will be the biggest test and the most important for us because it will determine our status in the group,” added the ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid keeper.

“Unlike the four previous big tournaments, we won the first game at Euro 2016 and went through so it shows the importance of a good start.”

Ahead of the World Cup, Nawalka, who switched to three at the back after the qualifying campaign, faces the same old problems, which are the depth of his squad and players struggling to find form at their clubs.

Some of the players moved clubs after the Euros but failed to establish themselves, while others got injured or lost form leaving the national team manager with some serious doubts.

“Many lads had problems but today nobody’s raising the alarm,” Dudek said. “Everybody trusts the manager and hopes that during the month he’ll get before the tournament he’ll prepare the team properly.

“I think the experience the coach has in the preparations for the finals is very important.

“Expectations are positive this time. It’s not like we’ve got hammered in 2016 and now everyone awaits another hammering. It’s important from the team’s mental point of view.”

The good news for Poland is that Napoli striker Arkadiusz Milik has returned from a second serious knee injury ahead of the tournament, which gives the manager more options up front.

His presence in the team also takes some of the pressure off their Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, by far the most important player in Nawalka’s World Cup plans.

Editing by Ken Ferris

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