Poland v Slovakia: Eagles may edge tight encounter

Group E at Euro 2020 gets underway on Monday evening with Poland taking on Slovakia in Saint Petersburg and Mark O'Haire is expecting a cagey affair...

Polish plans disrupted by injuries

Poland's preparations for Euro 2020 have been far from serene. In January, the Polish Football Association (PZPN) axed head coach Jerzy Brzeczek and opted to bring in Paulo Sousa as his replacement even though the former Portugal midfielder had no previous connection to Polish football and no previous managerial experience at international level.

The idea was to transition the Eagles towards a more attack-minded approach. Under the Red-Whites predecessor, performances were dreary and defensive with star striker Robert Lewandowski often isolated and frustrated by a lack of service. Under Sousa, Poland have at least looked more threatening in forward areas, although injuries have also disrupted plans.

A broken leg ruled Krzysztof Piatek out of Sousa's provisional squad and fellow hitman Arkadiusz Milik has now withdrawn with a knee issue. It means the Eagles arrive without two of their three key forwards and the two-striker system now possibly redundant. A re-think is required with playmaker Piotr Zielinski potentially playing closer to Lewandowski.

Slovakia unlikely to sizzle

Slovakia are Group E's outsiders and it's easy to see why. The Falcons have posted a negative W8-D5-L10 return in competitive contests since September 2018, failing to score in 35% of those encounters and generating a worrisome 0.88 Expected Goals (xG) average. No competing nation at Euro 2020 ranks below Stefan Tarkovic's team in those metrics.

Despite a change in the dugout of their own back in October 2020, performances have failed to inspire with the Repre generally fielding a defensively-minded variant of 4-5-1 that involves packing the midfield and waiting for counter-attacks. A lack of attacking full-backs has restricted tactical options and the squad has had their own issues with injuries.

David Strelec will miss the tournament and fellow striker Ivan Schranz is considered a major doubt for Monday. It leaves Tarkovic worryingly short of alternatives for less-than-prolific forwards Michal Duris and Robert Bozenik, with veteran Marek Hamsik shouldering the creative burden. Expect the underdogs to sit deep in numbers and play on the break.

Eagles odds-on favourites

Poland and Slovakia are locking horns for the ninth time with Slovakia enjoying a slight W4-D1-L3 head-to-head advantage. The duos two most recent meetings came in friendlies back in 2012 and 2013, with the last competitive contest arriving in qualification for the 2010 World Cup - Slovakia took top honours on both occasions in 2008 and 2009.

Getting a firm read on Poland 1.87 coming into this competition isn't easy. However, the Eagles are fair odds-on favourites to pinch maximum points considering the calibre of player at Paulo Sousa's disposal. The White-Red haven't always impressed since flopping at the 2018 World Cup so punters are urged to tread cautiously ahead of the first group game.

Slovakia 5.6 have bagged just three victories across their past 17 internationals (W3-D9-L5), failing to beat the likes of Malta, Cyprus and Israel. During that same sequence, the Falcons have returned W1-D3-L1 in fixtures against Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, averaging just 0.61 xG. A lack of final-third threat could prove costly.

Poland can edge tight encounter

The opening round of group games at a major tournament tend to be the tightest and the European Championship is no exception. Since the start of Euro '96, a huge 66% of first round group games have produced Under 2.5 Goals 1.57 with just 2.15 goals per-game on average. At Euro 2016, that average dropped to 1.83 with 83% of games going Under 2.5.

With that in mind, coupled with Poland's recent injury issues in attack, plus Slovakia's preference for pragmatism, the Saint Petersburg showdown could be one for the purists. Nevertheless, the 1.75 available on Poland in the Double Chance market alongside Under 2.5 Goals holds plenty of appeal with a 1-0, 2-0, 0-0 or 1-1 correct score paying-out.

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