|Poland was eliminated Saturday against the Czechs. (AP photo)|
Never once in the days, minutes and seconds leading up to Poland's final group game against Czech Republic did I believe I would be writing the host country's obituary right now. Not once did I see a way Poland would lose a game they had to win in order to advance in front of their fans on their turf. Not once did it occur to me this team with so much potential could let an opportunity like this slip away.
Everything was set up for a monumental moment in Poland soccer history. The atmosphere was electric, with Polish fans chanting their country's name in anticipation of watching the young and talented side advance and possibly win the group with a little help.
But Poland couldn't come through on the biggest of all stages and I'm forced to reflect on what might have been, a shocking development that has me stunned even after the initial shock has worn off. Poland was eliminated from the Euro 2012 tournament with a 1-0 loss to Czech Republic.
This was as maddening a game I can remember, with Poland again looking like they could challenge for the Euro title, let alone beat the Czechs, in this must-win game. For 20-plus minutes Poland created scoring chance after scoring chance, at least seven of them. But with no precision and no luck on those chances, the Poles had nothing to show for it.
Both teams went into the locker room deadlocked at 0-0 with 45 minutes of soccer left to be played. Forty-five minutes that could change soccer in Poland for years to come. If Poland could play as they did in the first half, there would be no doubt they would be rewarded with a goal and a likely victory. The one thing that couldn't happen was a repeat of the Greece game, where Poland dominated early, got a goal, but had to settle for a draw when they played terribly in the second half.
At the break, both Poland and Czech Republic got news that changed the game, as Greece was leading Russia 1-0 at the break in their game being played at the same time. That raised the stakes for each team, with Poland having the chance to not only advance with a win, but win the group if the Greece-Russia result remained the same. On the other sideline, the Czechs suddenly had a new sense of urgency in their tournament life, as only a victory would push them through to the knockout stage if the other result stayed true.
Both should have been huge motivators, but only one side took it to heart and onto the field in the second half. That was the Czech Republic.
As good as Poland was in the first half, that's how good and dominate the Czechs were in the second. The Czechs spent what seemed like the entire stanza in the Polish end of the field, creating multiple scoring chances while the Poles simply tried to defend against what appeared to be an unstoppable onslaught.
Unlike Poland, the Czechs finally cashed in one of their many attempts, as Petr Jiracek corralled a pass in the box, moved to his right and shot the ball past Poland goalkeeper Przemyslaw Tyton, who had little chance to make the save, in the 72nd minute for a 1-0 lead.
Suddenly, Poland was behind and had to score twice in the final 20 minutes in order to advance, as close to impossible as you can get in soccer. Poland had a couple of chances but couldn't bury a shot in its most important game in my years following international soccer.
I don't think I'll ever be able to understand why Poland couldn't keep up its magnificent play displayed early in the game. Just like they did against Greece in the opener, looking like they could compete for the Euro 2012 championship in the first 20 or so minutes, to a team that resembled a completely different side thereafter, is simply inexplicable.
The Czechs came out in the second half with the fire and desperation that the Poles should have continued for the entire game, especially after seeing at the break they could be group winners with a victory. But Poland's game changed completely, going from a team that had no chance to be beaten, to one that was just hanging on for dear life, trying to survive what became a no-win situation.
The loss in no uncertain terms was devastating. Poland has a lot to look forward to on the international stage, with a young team on the cusp of possible greatness. They just need to learn how to play 90 minutes of soccer, because spurts of greatness won't beat anyone of quality. That was learned in this Euro tournament.
Unlike some other nations that took part in the tourney, namely Ireland, there doesn't have to be a complete revamp of the roster. Experience might be the only thing holding the Poland side from becoming a soccer power in the very near future.
No matter how you analyze it, Poland's time in the Euro tournament was a complete disappointment. They simply should have advanced within the group, there's no denying that. But the silver lining, if there is one at this heartbreaking stage, is the future is indeed bright for Poland soccer.