If someone had said to Paulo Sousa before the tournament that his Poland team would go into their last Euro 2020 group game against Sweden bottom of the table with one point he would probably have screwed up his face and said it was not good enough.
However, how you approach a game often depends on your last outing and for Poland that was a hugely encouraging draw against Spain on Saturday. So despite their precarious situation they take on Sweden on Wednesday night in a rather positive mood.
As the goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny said on Tuesday: “Mentally, it is pretty easy when you know you have to win the match. No need to speculate. So the mental approach to such a game is much simpler because you don’t leave any energy for the last few minutes or the next match. You play for your life, and I think that can help us.”
Gone is the gloom from the opening 2-1 defeat by Slovakia, when Grzegorz Krychowiak was sent off. When the Polish players returned to their base in Sopot after the 1-1 draw against the 2008 and 2012 champions, people left their spots on the nearby beach to applaud them.
Robert Lewandowski scored too, another reason to be cheerful for Sousa and his team. They are desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2018 World Cup when they finished bottom of their group – behind Colombia, Japan and Senegal – and that is partly why the Polish FA president, Zbigniew Boniek, took the unexpected decision to fire the coach who had taken them to Euro 2020, Jerzy Brzeczek, in January.
The general consensus is that the draw against Spain would not have been achieved under Brzeczek. Sousa is a popular figure in Poland. At his unveiling, he talked about the country’s great traditions and even Pope John Paul II, and although results have not been outstanding he has formed a bond with the fans.
On Tuesday he described the game against Sweden as a final. “We have been working hard since the first day of our training camp to be prepared,” he said at the pre-match press conference. “We also get a lot of energy from the fans. Thanks to them, we have not felt we have played away at the Euro finals, they always supported us. It is a big honour for me to represent them.”
There was also praise for Wednesday night’s opponents, though. “It is true that from a statistical point of view, Sweden have a better record against Poland,” he said. “But if we look at the past, we won’t move forward. We are only focused on what is now. Sweden are a perfect team. They press very well, they are good in set-pieces. There is huge diversity in their play.”
Sousa asks a lot from his players and wants them to be tactically flexible. The jury is still out on whether the players understand exactly what he wants them to do and against Sweden they will have to go on the attack, which is not their normal starting point. Poland are best when they can counterattack and use Lewandowski as an outlet. If a team get organised they can often isolate the Bayern Munich striker and then Poland’s options are suddenly limited.
Sweden have been one of the most defensive sides in the tournament so far, which means that Poland have to work on their attack if they are to progress. The fact that Arkadiusz Milik was ruled out with injury on the eve of the tournament has not helped and Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski has not been at his creative best so far.
But the Sweden centre-back, Marcus Danielson, warned his teammates that this Poland team is more than just Lewandowski. “We can’t focus on just one player,” he said. “Of course he’s their best and most important player, but we need to defend as a team – against him and the rest of the Polish team. We have a structure and a defence that works really well, and we never shy away from the effort needed in every match.”
One of the main questions for Sousa before the game is whether to re-introduce Krychowiak now that his suspension is over or stick with Jakub Moder. Poland played better with the Brighton midfielder in the team but he picked up a knee injury and it is uncertain if he will be fit.
Sweden are already through to the last 16, having drawn with Spain and then beaten Slovakia 1-0 to sit on four points. Poland are desperate to join them.