DAVID SHONFIELD: New-look Poland must prove credentials away from home

Kick-off for Friday’s European qualifier between Georgia and Poland in Tbilisi is 9pm, one hour and a quarter later than the match in Glasgow.

But, time zones being what they are, Ireland and Scotland will know the result before the start of their match, and thus should have an answer to the big question about Group D.

Are Poland really a force to reckon with?

They are on a nice unbeaten run now, including that historic 2-0 victory over Germany in Warsaw last month, but wind the clock back a bit and their results have been unimpressive, especially away from home.

Excluding the real minnows of international football, their last away victory of note was against Belarus in a friendly exactly three years ago. It is six years since they won a match against decent opposition outside Poland. Organised and well-drilled opponents such as Georgia have often been their undoing.

It’s evidence of the change in mood that the 2-2 draw against Scotland felt like a letdown. Their hero then was young striker Arkadiusz Milik, one of the new generation. Milik, like others, is already playing for a foreign club, in his case Ajax, and that has become both a strength and a headache for manager Adam Nawalka.

The foreign contingent are mostly in the Bundesliga, led by Robert Lewandowski, formerly with Borussia Dortmund now at Bayern Munich. Left back Lukasz Piszczek, still at Dortmund, and Pawel Olkowski at Köln, are two others.

The player Poland miss badly is Kuba (Jakub Blaszczykowski) the excellent Dortmund winger who suffered a cruciate injury last January and was then injured again in training in September just when aiming for a comeback.

Nawalka is not without home-based talent. As Legia Warsaw have demonstrated recently, there is now some quality in Poland’s top division, the Ekstraklasa.

The manager has however chopped and changed to an extraordinary degree. Some managers like to ring the changes, Louis Van Gaal is an example, but Nawalka must have come close to a record with his selections.

Since taking over a year ago he has picked 56 players, not counting another 11 who were named in squads but didn’t play.

Poland have three established goalkeepers in Wojciech Szczesny, Lukasz Fabianski and Artur Boruc, all playing in England. Przemyslaw Tyton, who plays for Elche in La Liga, has proved to be a decent backup. Yet Nawalka has called up a further seven keepers since January. He now seems to have a more settled side in mind, and that has come with a changed formation. Poland had persisted with a 4-2-3-1, with Lewandowski carrying the weight of the attack.

Nawalka’s switch to 4-4-2 has enabled them to use quick attacking players down the flanks, both wingers and full-backs, in a return to an old and successful Polish tradition. In midfield, Grzegorz Krychowiak of Sevilla is a holding player who can also attack. Above all young Milik has shown he can complement Lewandowski in a striking partnership.

Lewandowski, still only 26, looks like becoming Poland’s biggest star since Zbigniew Boniek. Outstanding in Dortmund’s lightning counter-attack, notably with his four-goal demolition of Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final, he has adapted immediately to Bayern’s very different style of football.

He’s a natural finisher, but his agility and strength give him a special edge, a bit like a lightweight version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic has taekwando, Lewandowski puts his agility down to gymnastics. Both his parents were PE teachers and he grew up as a gymnast as well as a footballer. The other big unfluence – again like Ibra – has been his wife. Helena Ibrahimovic is a business manager. Anna Lewandowska is a specialist in nutrition and diet. She is also a medal winner in World and European karate championships.

With Lewandowski as their spearhead Poland are once again starting to look like a team that can challenge. But first they have to show they can succeed abroad as well as at home.


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