Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. First up in Group H is Poland.
For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.
Our writers say: The Poles gamed FIFA’s rankings to sneak into pot 1 at the draw, and thus into a winnable group. Robert Lewandowski aside, however, they don’t have the quality of other top-seeded sides. Failure at the group stage is more likely than a knockout stage victory. — Henry Bushnell
(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)
World Cup appearance: 8th
Best World Cup finish: 3rd place (1974, 1982)
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group E ahead of Denmark, Montenegro
Schedule: Senegal (Tuesday, June 19, 8 a.m., FS1), Colombia (Sunday, June 24, 2 p.m., Fox), Japan (Thursday, June 28, 10 a.m., Fox/FS1)
Manager: Adam Nawalka
Captain: Robert Lewandowski (F)
Top players: Lewandowski, Piotr Zielinski (M), Kamil Glik (D), Arkadiusz Milik (F), Wojciech Szczesny (G)
Full 23-man squad
Why they’ll win games: The starting 11 on June 19 might be Poland’s best of the 21st century. Lewandowski was the qualifying cycle’s top scorer, but he didn’t just bang in 16 goals with no support. Zielinski is, in many ways, the ideal sidekick. Karol Linetty has emerged to complement him and Grzegorz Krychowiak in midfield. Poland seemed to have developed a reputation as a fairly rigid, ordinary side earlier this decade, but this iteration fits neither description.
Why they’ll lose games: They conceded 14 goals in a qualifying group that resembled a pond full of minnows (plus Denmark). That ranked joint 31st in Europe. And then Glik, the best of four fading defenders – average age 30 – injured his shoulder attempting a bicycle kick in a training game of soccer volleyball. With little depth, that’s a concern. And on an unrelated note, there’s a worry that poor club form – Krychowiak couldn’t even get games at West Brom by season’s end – could carry over to the national team.
How they’ll play: Here’s where we discuss Milik. At times over the past two years, he’s been Poland’s second-most highly-rated player. But he’s had horrid luck with injuries, and only just returned from his latest torn knee ligament for the final few months of the club season. If fit and firing, his presence might compel Nawalka to go 4-4-2, with Milik and Lewandowski paired up top. But the team functions better in a 4-2-3-1 anyway, so Milik will likely come off the bench.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Wojciech Szczesny; Lukasz Piszczek, Michal Pazdan, Jan Bednarek, Maciej Rybus; Grzegorz Krychowiak, Karol Linetty; Jakub Blaszczykowski, Piotr Zielinski, Kamil Grosicki; Robert Lewandowski.
If Milik starts, Zielinski could slide wide, likely into Grosicki’s spot. If Glik is fit – he is in the squad, because the injury occurred hours after Poland submitted its official roster to FIFA – he’ll replace Bednarek. Elsewhere, this 11 seems set.
What makes them unique: Let’s talk about those FIFA rankings, and Poland’s scheming. And no, let’s not criticize it. Let’s laud it. It’s brilliant. Poland recognized a flaw in those rankings, which are used to seed the World Cup draw. They effectively punish teams merely for playing friendlies, regardless of wins and losses. So Poland simply decided to stop playing friendlies. It arranged just one between Euro 2016 and the all-important October 2017 rankings release, compared to four or five for most other nations. As a result, in less than two years, it rose from 35th to 6th. It jumped the likes of Spain into Pot 1 at the draw, and got a manageable group. It isn’t the only one to have pulled the ploy. But it executed better than anybody else.
Why to root for them: Because rooting against a striker as clinical and prolific as Lewandowski is often agonizing.
Why to root against them: There’s just not too much that makes them compelling, either from a footballing standpoint or a human-interest standpoint.
If you’re going to watch one game … Either of the first two. Take your pick.
Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan
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More World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Ranking the top 100 players at the World Cup
• FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
• A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
• How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit