It speaks volumes for the improvement of Poland’s national team that they could qualify for the Euro 2016 knockout rounds, unbeaten, with a points total that is superior to some group winners – and do it without Robert Lewandowski having a shot on target.
On what is France’s national day of music, Lewandowski hit a couple of bum notes with the chances that fell his way. Poland, though, are a more rounded team these days and have enjoyed bright moments in all of their group games. They were able to bask in a technically accomplished matchwinner provided by the substitute Jakub Blaszczykowski, who turned the game with a touch of class. Poland were not at their best and Ukraine can rue a string of opportunities untaken. They go home, without a point or even a goal, mulling over their unrewarding experience.
Poland canter on. Next up they face Switzerland in the round of 16 in St Étienne on Saturday. After finishing Group C with a very similar record to Germany (runners-up only by dint of scoring one goal fewer over the three games) they have every reason to approach that game with positivity. A goal for you-know-who might have helped but perhaps it does Poland no harm to feel there is an extra layer to add to their performances to come.
Poland’s coach, Adam Nawalka, could not have sounded more confident that Lewandowski will make his mark. “It is just a matter of time,” he said. “I think he will score in the next match. That he hasn’t scored yet is not a problem for our team. He is doing a lot of hard, fantastic work and is a great influence in the way we play. He is like the steam that powers our locomotive.”
It was still remarkable that he did not find the net with an early chance. Arkadiusz Milik, who had already driven a shot straight at Andriy Pyatov, sent his attacking partner clean through. With the exuberant Polish crowd whooping in anticipation of a goal at last for their main man, Lewandowski managed to skew the chance wide.
If that start hinted at Polish dominance, Ukraine had other ideas and soon began to exert the upper hand. Their determination to leave a good impression was striking and they passed and pressed neatly enough to force a handful of presentable first-half chances. The team had been shocked by their struggles in the group and were clearly fired up to improve. “There are games you play for the result and there are those you play for honour,” noted the midfielder Ruslan Rotan.
The youthful exuberance of Olexandr Zinchencko stood out. There were chances for the teenager Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko. When the lively Zinchenko stretched to meet Yevhen Konoplyanka’s cross and directed a header over the bar it was reasonable to wonder when Poland might wake up.
Nawalka tried to add some zest by introducing the reliably energetic Blaszczykowski at half-time. It turned out to be one for the inspired substitution’s collection as the Fiorentina midfielder suddenly produced the game’s best moment of virtuoso skill. Receiving the ball in the penalty area from Milik’s clever reverse pass, he rolled the ball into space with his right foot and then arced in a beautifully struck drive with his left. A moment of sheer quality lifted the occasion.
“Kuba is an important player for us, he is very experienced,” said Nawalka. “He has a great influence on how we play and proved it again. I made the substitution because I wanted to reinforce the midfield. Once he came off the bench he increased the quality of our play. I can count on him. He will start the next match. He has many great matches to play ahead of him.”
The psychological blow to Ukraine was obvious. They tried to engineer a comeback but strained for ruthlessness. Konoplyanka and Zinchenko slashed at efforts too high. Zozulya glanced a header close but not close enough.
Ukraine’s players slumped at the final whistle. Their coach, Mykhailo Fomenko, was a vision of doom afterwards, sighing deeply as he tried to explain the various problems that have troubled his team. “What is football actually?” he pondered at one point, as if wrestling with a deep existential complexity. He said he would analyse his future position but the vibes were not positive.
Ukraine do actually have some promising young players. Rotan expressed his hope for a better future. “We have to work on the psychological level, maybe we didn’t have the mentality,” he said. “But it was a very good experience, we have good young players and in the future you will see a stronger Ukraine.”
Poland almost treated the confirmation of their progress as business as usual. That also speaks volumes about a team intent on faring well. Nawalka radiated confidence about their next rendezvous with Switzerland. “The Swiss have two extra days to rest doesn’t make any difference for us,” he said. “We are very well prepared physically for this tournament. I am sure our players will have enough rest. We have faith and optimism we will go further.”
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