London: Without even kicking a football, Poland already got lucky at the European Championship. The Poles managed to avoid all the favorites in the draw, giving the co-hosts an ever better chance to capitalize on their home-field advantage and reach the quarterfinals for the first time in their history.
"It is our goal to advance from the group and I am convinced we can do it," Poland coach Franciszek Smuda said. "But this is a group that you can be wrong about." Poland will open against 2004 European champion Greece on June 8 in Warsaw. The co-hosts will later face Russia and the Czech Republic, making it perhaps the most open of the four groups at this year's tournament."
"The European Championship is a special event where all teams are highly motivated," Russia striker Alexander Kerzhakov said. "Definitely Poland, which is playing at home, will be the most difficult opponent, though the Czechs and Greece are also tough opponents."
Greece won the opening the match in 2004 against host Portugal on the way to its surprising title. And although the team qualified for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, the Greeks have excelled since Fernando Santos took over as coach two years ago, losing only one of 19 matches.
The chances of a 2004 repeat are slim — especially with either the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany or Portugal waiting in the quarterfinals — but Greece is looking to return to its best in Poland. "Greeks have a passion for football and I know my players will be determined," Santos said. "We have some problems but that's no excuse. We are not going for a holiday."
The Russians exceeded expectations last time, reaching the semifinals after beating the high-flying Dutch in the Euro 2008 quarterfinals. Although they lost to eventual champion Spain, the Russians will be back this time with nearly the same time — albeit with a different Dutch coach. Dick Advocaat took over from Guus Hiddink after the World Cup, reuniting him with some of his former players from his time in St. Petersburg. "I already had worked (in Russia) and of course I knew the players well," Advocaat said. "I just built on a group of CSKA players and Zenit players."
One of the key factors for Russia could be Pavel Pogrebnyak. He missed Euro 2008 with a knee injury, but the striker has been in good form this year since his move to the Premier League with London club Fulham. "Everybody's reaction was we got an easy draw, but I believe we have the most equal group," Pogrebnyak said. "We are even at a disadvantage because we have one of the host teams playing in our group. That's why it will be very interesting — qualifying from the group is not guaranteed for anyone."
The Czech Republic is the long shot in the group, only a shadow of the team that reached the Euro 2004 semifinals and lost to Greece. The Czechs still have a strong backbone, led by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech and Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky, but many of the rest an unproven newcomers.
"We may be considered the outsiders of the tournament, but why not give it a try?" Rosicky said. "They give us a low chance to succeed but I'm one of those who will be fighting." Each team has its stars and key players, but Poland will get an extra boost from having three of its top players also playing together at club level — for Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek all helped Dortmund win its second consecutive German league title this year, and they're now focused on doing it at home.
"We are the driving force behind our (Dortmund) team," Lewandowski said. "I hope we'll be the same for the national team during the European Championship."