In his first post for the blog Marcin Ostrowski has a look at the up and coming talents in Poland’s Euro 2016 squad and wonders whether Polish Coach Adam Nawałka will stick with the tried and tested formula of the qualifiers or take a risk on youth.
While Poland’s hopes rest mostly on the shoulders of Bayern Munich’s star striker Robert Lewandowski, Sevilla’s midfield leader Grzegorz Krychowiak and Torino’s back-line warrior Kamil Glik, a number of young players want to confirm their talent during the upcoming European Championships.
When Adam Nawałka announced his squad for Euro 2016, Polish journalists found it hard to grab their readers’ attention with catchy titles. There were no sensational omissions or last minute call-ups in the final cut. Fans could discuss whether one or other peripheral player deserved a place in the squad or not, but there was consensus that Poland go to France with their currently strongest squad. During the tournament the spine of the team will be based on players who played in the qualifications, but a few young players – who didn’t play an important role in qualifying but shone in the 2015-6 season – will get a chance to appear in the national team too.
It was not always the case in Poland – a country, that despite its relatively large population and football being by far the most popular sport, can never take qualifying for major tournaments for granted. It means that Polish fans celebrate successful qualifying campaigns almost like trophies and managers may be tempted to stick to their battle seasoned squad. When Poland qualified for the 2002 World Cup after 16 years of drought, then national manager Jerzy Engel admitted that players who had achieved that feat would get the chance to play in Japan and Korea. During the Asian tournament Engel kept some of his most in-form players on the bench, trusting his qualifying line-up until the chance to progress was lost, despite clear indicators that some of his favourite players had suffered a loss of form.
Four years later in Germany, Paweł Janas chose the opposite direction. He shocked fans and media in Poland when he resigned from the services of several key internationals, who suffered a lack of match form at their clubs. Among players who he left out of the final squad were iconic goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek and experienced predator Tomasz Frankowski. Janas replaced them with players who were in better form at their clubs, but the World Cup appearance was again far from satisfying.
Compared to that, Nawałka’s squad looks like a very balanced mix of experience and talent. Some may argue former captain Jakub Błaszczykowski has not done much recently to deserve the status of an international player, yet he was called up. On the other side the manager resigned from Łukasz Szukała who was the first team centre-back in the qualifiers. 1,96 m (6 ft 5 in) tall Cagliari’s Bartosz Salamon could be his natural replacement. At the age of 25, it’s hard to call Salamon a hot prospect, but it may be his best chance to finally achieve a more important role in the national team. Three years after his international debut, the defender who has never played in Polish league and plies his trade in Italy, achieved promotion to Serie A with his Sardinian club and may be ready to form a successful partnership with Torino’s Kamil Glik at the heart of the defence. Most pundits expect Legia Warsaw’s Michał Pazdan to start ahead of Salamon, but in the recent friendly game against Holland, the former wasn’t convincing. Salamon’s advantage is height, thus providing Poland with more safety in the air. As a former midfielder, he is also a decent passer of the ball.
Even more quality is expected from the central midfielder Piotr Zieliński. Just like Salamon, Zieliński has never played in the Polish league, moving to Italy at a young age. After occasional performances for Udinese, he flourished on loan at Empoli, becoming the leader of the modest Tuscanian club that surprisingly finished Serie A in a decent 10th place last season. At 22, Zieliński was chosen in the official Italian league Team of the Season and is a target of top European clubs including Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. It will be an interesting and difficult challenge for Nawałka to accomodate Zieliński in his 4-4-2 formation, as one of main Poland’s assets is the successful partnership of strikers Robert Lewandowski and Arkadiusz Milik. Slim and technically gifted, Zieliński is much more successful in offensive actions so the question remains whether he is ready to play in one of the two central midfield spots, just ahead of the backline. In the recent friendly game against Holland, he wasn’t fully convincing in this area.
Three other young players who made Nawałka’s final cut are Bartosz Kapustka, Mariusz Stępiński and Karol Linetty. It’s difficult to imagine any of them in the starting line-up in France, but each of them can provide quality coming from the bench. Cracovia’s talented midfielder Kapustka has already achieved a reputation of a super sub in the national team, scoring shortly after coming on the pitch against both Gibraltar and Iceland last autumn. Still not yet 20, Kapustka is considered to be one of the brightest talents in Polish football with a big club future ahead of him.
The 21 year old Karol Linetty from Lech Poznań seems to have a smaller chance to shine in France than Kapustka, yet he is definitely a strong presence in the young generation of Polish midfielders. Last but not least, Ruch Chorzów’s Mariusz Stępiński, who was the top Polish scorer in the Ekstraklasa this season, made the final squad at the expense of the more experienced striker Artur Sobiech. As both strikers Lewandowski and Milik are among Poland’s biggest stars, it will be difficult for Stępiński to get a lot of playing time, but even going to the tournament should be an important experience for the gifted 21 year old forward.
Nawałka’s choices were widely seen as giving a chance to players who are currently the best. The good news for the future of Polish football is that among the current best there are several young players. Whatever the outcome in France, the qualifiers for the Russian World Cup start soon after this summer’s tournament. With the blend of youth and experience in the squad there is no risk that the whole generation of players will end their international careers and the team will have to be built from the rubble, as has happened in the past. With the likes of Zieliński, Kapustka, Linetty and Stępiński pushing for starting places (and Milik at 22 already an important member of the first team), the future of the Polish national team looks stable if not altogether spectacular.