Game of the Day: Poland vs. Northern Ireland, Nice, 17:00
The only place to start with this game is with the little bit of class that will be sprinkling the whole affair. Robert Lewandowski.
Not taking anything away from either the Poland squad or Michael O’Neill’s Northern Irish side, Robert Lewandowski is a mighty fine player. 13 goals in qualifying was more than any other in getting to France but my mind personally recalls his performance for Borussia Dortmund in the semi-final of the Champions League against Real Madrid. That drag back in the penalty area was cheeky but to dispatch his shot into the top corner afterwards meant the whole movement was as audacious as it was world class.
To have a player of that capability in your side is always a bonus, a true game changer, and for Polish manager Adam Nawalka, the relationship between Arkadiusz Milik and Robert Lewandowski is a major factor in the success of Poland’s campaign.
Another key facet to Poland’s hopes is Sevilla midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak (trying saying that after a few, or even beforehand to be honest). With Nawalka favouring a more patient, possession based philosophy, a midfield in the mould of Krychowiak is crucial in re-capturing and consequently moving the ball on.
Poland’s preparations for these finals haven’t been perfect, losing to Holland and then drawing 0-0 with Lithuania but this Poland side is solid with each player knowing their role in the system. And with 33 goals from 10 games in qualifying, once Poland start playing, it tends to mean goals.
You can’t help but be impressed with Northern Ireland. Unbeaten in their last 12 games, Northern Ireland unexpectedly topped their qualifying group and will feel mighty aggrieved to have been handed such a tough assignment in the finals.
The Northern Irish contingent must have been cursing their luck when the draw for the finals was carried out to see the likes of Poland and Germany named amongst themselves. By no means out of contention for France, once it became clear that Greece hated football, O’Neill and Northern Ireland seized the initiative in a qualifying group where they stood at best an outside chance of making it France.
Fast forward to today and O’Neill sets his rather slender squad to make the most of their qualities – set piece delivery and running. They will score headers and they will run themselves into the ground. Whilst you can accuse these tactics as negative football, Northern Ireland are hard to break down and in those games where margins are everything, such willingness to expend energy makes this Northern Irish midfield a nightmare to play against in tournament football.
Will they get out the groups? It will be one hell of a mighty ask but one thing about this expanded European Championships is that they actually might and if Poland continue to stutter, Lewandowski might not be the only superstar to struggle to breakdown Johnny Evans and co.
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog