ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Poland's Euro 2020 journey came to an early end on Wednesday when they finished last in Group E with just one point after a 3-2 loss to Sweden - a far cry from their ambition to rival their success of 2016 when they made it to the quarter-finals.
After a surprise 2-1 loss in their opening game to lower-ranked Slovakia, Poland got their campaign back on track with a 1-1 draw against Spain.
They then needed three points against Sweden to reach the knockout stages. Their leaky defence, however, proved their undoing: Poland conceded six goals in three games, compared with only two goals in five games during the 2016 campaign.
The early trip home is largely the result of an unholy mix of individual errors, bad luck, missing key players and tactical choices by coach Paulo Sousa.
Left without first-team regulars such as Olympique Marseille's Arkadiusz Milik and Hertha Berlin's Krzysztof Piatek due to injuries, Poland had to rely on their superstar Robert Lewandowski, who in the opening match against Slovakia - unlike in previous games under Sousa - acted as a lone striker.
Against Sweden, the lack of a solid aerial presence against the formidable defence proved too much.
Although the 2021 European Golden Boot winner Lewandowski managed to put two more goals on his tournament account in the final match, it was not enough to make up for the bitter loss suffered against Slovakia and conclude the last-chance Sweden match in his side's favour.
"You can't deny our will to fight, ambition and determination, but we lacked something -- probably skills -- to win the game and go on," Lewandowski told Polish TV after the game.
Sousa's men went into the opener against Slovakia hoping to relieve some pressure before facing Group E favourites Spain. However, the tournament's first own goal from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and two yellow cards for Gregorz Krychowiak killed the momentum before Milan Skriniar sealed Poland's defeat with a late goal.
A draw against Spain was a welcome morale boost, but the weakness in Poland's defence was still visible. They lacked chemistry, and the passes went both too far and too short, failing to build a strong attack.
"We can't concede silly goals we conceded in those games," Sousa said after the Sweden game.
In charge for five months, Sousa has managed to win only one of his eight games with Poland, a World Cup qualifier against Andorra. He will be hoping to bring in some better results in the near future if he plans to keep the job beyond autumn.
(Reporting by Tommy Lund and Anita Kobylinska, additional reporting by Bartosz Dabrowski; editing by Milla Nissi and Hugh Lawson)