If Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny wanted any more reason to be confident ahead of their trip to Ireland in March, he needed only to have looked behind his goal during Poland’s humbling of Georgia on Friday night.
Conspicuously draped over the south stand at the Boris Paichadze Stadium, was a red and white flag bearing the phrase “Poland’s Irish community on tour.”
Martin O’Neill may be making much of Ireland’s upcoming run of home fixtures in as key to resurrecting their European Championship qualification ambitions but, if a few hundred Poles trekked 4,500 kilometres from Ireland to Tbilisi, then several thousands of the expatriates are expected at Lansdowne Road on March 29.
In an era of disappointing crowds at the Dublin venue in recent years, the best-attended friendly since Lionel Messi and Argentina visited for the opener in 2010 was the meeting with Poland.
That game in February 2013 attracted 43,112 fans to Dublin 4 and, although an official breakdown is unavailable, at least half were thought to be supporting the away side.
On the back of their blistering start to the campaign that sees them sit atop Group D — four points ahead of Ireland, Germany and Scotland — interest in tickets from Poles both at home and Ireland will be intense.
That’s just one reason why Szczesny carries with him an air of optimism into a game Ireland simply cannot afford to lose if they’re to avoid, at best, relying on the risky play-off route to France.
“We’re in a great position on top of the group, so another good result for us in Dublin would almost certainly open the door to qualification,” suggested the goalkeeper about the possibility of creating a six-point gap over Ireland with just five qualifiers left.
“Although our last trip to play Ireland wasn’t a good performance by us as we lost, there were loads of Poland’s fans inside the stadium.
“I’m sure there will be another brilliant atmosphere in Dublin but we’ve improved as a team since then and don’t plan to slip up after a starting the campaign so well.”
Szczesny’s consistent form, and that of striker Robert Lewandowski, will need to be maintained if they’re to finish the job and feature at a third European championship on the spin.
Just two goals conceded during the four games, both in the 2-2 draw against Scotland last month, illustrate the contribution of the Gunners’ stopper to their ascent. His heroics in the 2-0 victory over Germany proved particularly crucial. Caution tends to accompany optimism around Poland’s football team, not least after the most recent campaign came unstuck. Upon starting their quest to reach the World Cup brightly, including a 1-1 draw against England, they then floundered over the second half by losing to Ukraine, England and, most fatally, drawing in Moldova.
Their improvement during this campaign is so sharp that victory in Dublin at the midway point of this campaign would match their total 13-point haul from the last series. The Arsenal man feels the revival can be explained by a combination of internal and external factors.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve got stick from the Polish media for not performing but these days, everyone is behind us. The atmosphere is as good outside the dressing room as in it,” he explained.
“The main difference from the last campaign is how few goals we’ve conceded. We set the standard in this campaign by beating Germany and staying top of the group after Friday’s win in Georgia. The management always have us well prepared and those standards will be maintained against Ireland. We’ve worked hard over the opening four games to get into this position. Now, it’s a matter of not making mistakes.
“Picking up points in places like Dublin will be important, as will winning our three remaining matches at home.
“Everyone would have predicted Germany to win the group but that’s not the case now after them losing to us and drawing against Ireland. It’s difficult to see Germany dropping many points until the end of the campaign, yet we intend staying top.
“All that matters for us is qualifying, either in first or second place.”
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