WARSAW // For a nation of fatalists this was a sadly fitting opener to Euro 2012. Poland were dominant, aggressive and inspiring. They created chances easily, scored early, and had a team usually dependent on its defence reduced to 10 frustrated men by half time. The game was won.
Half an hour later the game – and the co-hosts’ tournament – was almost lost. Their defence handed an ugly equaliser to Greece. Culpable in that goal, their celebrated goalkeeper compounded his error by handing over a hot-headed penalty and collecting a red card of his own.
Only an inspired save by his understudy allowed Wojciech Szczesny to joke about waiting for a call from his father, a former international player, to tell him that “I’m not his son any more.”
Przemyslaw Tyton dived low to his left to block Giorgos Karagounis’ spot kick with his first touch. That Poland’s fate was not sealed by the penalty or a marginal offside decision to defy the inspirational Dimitris Salpingidis had more to do with fortune than resilience.
Home players who had complained of over-training in the build-up looked spent. Their coach reacted angrily to suggestions he had erred in the preparation or in his second-half strategy.
“Have you ever been a trainer? Have you ever been a coach? That’s your answer,” said Franciszek Smuda. “We were very well prepared. But we had a great pressure, great stress. I think it was a great burden for this very young team. They didn’t participate in a tournament like this before like the Greeks. I think we will get better and get through.”
That will take some doing after passing up this opportunity. National Stadium was clammy and clamorous, its new retractable roof kept shut to raise noise levels.
The red-and-white clad Polish support arrived early and expectant. What faced them was a team adept at foiling favourites
“The Greeks are perfect in defence,” Smuda said ahead of kick off. Unbeaten in the 10 qualifying matches, his opponents traded aggression for solidity. “Pragmatic” is a description Fernando Santos accepts.
“We are realistic and humble enough to have respect for everybody,” the Portuguese coach said. “Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is the only way to win the game. As we say in my country, ‘If you’re afraid, you buy a dog.’ As I bought two, I’m not afraid.”
Considered weaker at the back than in attack, Smuda risked both his controversially “foreign” defenders. The France-born Damien Perquis started at centre-back despite a fractured elbow; the Germany-raised Sebastian Boenisch was at left-back with a sore hamstring.
Trying to retain the fluidity of Poland’s passing game, Smuda sought to score early and force out the Greeks. Initially, their movement within was excellent. Working in the space behind Robert Lewandoski, Ludovic Obraniak changed positions with his wingers or sprinted ahead of the forward.
With Lukasz Piszczek regularly breaking down the right, Jakub Blaszczykowski was able to drop into central midfield, throwing a brutal energy into his play. As chances presented themselves to Obraniak, Rafal Murawski, Maciej Rybus and Blaszczykowski the tactic was working, but the failure to convert played on nerves.
Players, coach and half the stadium held heads in hands when Piszczek arced the ball across the six-yard box, the flaky Kostas Chalkias missed his punch, and Lewandowski hesitated and failed to turn a header into an open goal. Very much the modern centre forward in the quality of his link play, a lack of efficiency is his weak point.
The next opportunity could not be missed. Blaszczykowski and Piszczek tore down the right side again, the full back crossing to the back post. Eight yards from another empty net, Lewandoski converted to hefty decibels.
As half time approached, Sokratis Papastathopoulos collected a second yellow card for a clumsy, yet hardly criminal, block. “The sending off wasn’t justified,” said Santos. Greek ire rose still further as Perquis was excused a handball in his own area on their next attack.
Teased for their economic travails in the build-up, the visitors proved wonderfully obstinate. Santos sent on Salpingidis – held in reserve because he had played so many end-of-season play-off games – and encouraged his players forward. Poland started playing across the pitch into Greek hands.
Szczesny fumbled a high ball into Salpingidis path for a calm finish. Then he charged feet first into the striker as he controlled a long ball. Smuda refused to comment on the errors; he may not be so diplomatic in a week’s time.
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