Poland star striker Robert Lewandowski will be seeking to fire his side into the round of 16 as they take on Ukraine at the Stade Vélodrome on Tuesday evening.
For Poland, a first-ever berth in the knockout stages awaits. For Ukraine, they have the ignominious honor of being the first side to be eliminated at Euro 2016. No one really expected Mykhaylo Fomenko’s side to top their quarter, let alone go far in this tournament.
Still, thanks to the expanded format, this edition is a lot more forgiving. In addition to the usual top two sides, four third-placed teams will be in the final 16. Ukraine, however, are only one of two sides who did not pick up at least one point from their first two matches. The other, Turkey, is facing off against the Czech Republic, also on Tuesday. Certainly, for them to beat Germany would have been simply too much to ask – although they did trouble them for spells of the match.
However, Northern Ireland is another team all together. Without disrespecting the Green and White Army, they are one of several debutants at this Euro championship. On paper at least, they are a more evenly matched side. But alas, Ukraine were unable to make that count and the debutants deservedly earned their first ever win.
Ukraine’s last Euro win was back in 2012, when they beat Sweden 2-1. Since then, they have lost their last four games, scored none, and conceded seven. This is the joint-worst record of any team in this tournament, and they will be desperate to avoid making it a fifth loss on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Poland have fared quite well. With a win over Northern Ireland – their first ever – and a draw with Germany, they’re in a good position to qualify. Despite scoring just one goal so far, they have picked up four points, and should have no problem adding at least more against a dismal Ukrainian side. To date, Poland have never scored more than one goal at a Euro tournament and have only made one attempt on target, That was in their win over Northern Ireland.
Lewandowski, who was the top goalscorer in qualifying, has yet to open his account. He’s not alone – neither have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thomas Muller, Wayne Rooney, or Cristiano Ronaldo – but the Bayern Munich man will obviously be looking to get up and running in Poland’s final group stage match.
After two Euro disappointments, Poland are on the cusp of making history. They do, however have some injury and suspension concerns. First-choice keeper Wojciech Szczesny missed out on the tie with Germany due to a thigh complaint, and is in doubt for this game. And Kamil Grosicki, Bartosz Kapustka, Krzysztof Maczynski, Sławomir Peszko and Lukasz Piszczek are all one booking away from a ban.
So far, the two sides have met on seven occasions. Poland have won twice, Ukraine thrice, and the others were stalemates. Should Poland come out on top, it will be the first time since September 2000, when they beat the Ukrainians 3-1 during a World Cup qualifier.
A low scoring affair is certainly on the cards as well. Poland and Ukraine have only managed to score more than once in just one of their past five meetings. The other four, however, saw just six goals scored – but even a 0-0 draw will be enough to help Poland across the finish line.
Will Lewandowski finally grab his first goal and fire Poland into the knockout rounds? Or will an already eliminated Ukraine depart France with a last-gasp positive result?