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By Anita Kobylinska
GDANSK (Reuters) - Surprise quarter-finalists at Euro 2016, Poland will need to battle through a tough Group E against Slovakia, Spain and Sweden at this year's tournament to strengthen their claim to be a major force in central European soccer.
It could be a tough challenge for new manager Paulo Sousa after less than five months in charge and he must convince the players and fans that their early exit from the 2018 World Cup was just another stumble on the way to a new chapter.
Used to reminiscing on the golden days of Zbigniew Boniek and Grzegorz Lato, who led Poland to third place finishes in the 1974 and 1982 World Cups, the Poles believe there is new hope on the horizon especially with Robert Lewandowski leading the line.
Despite the strength of that 1970s team, which also picked up a gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Poland did not make an appearance at the Euros until 2008.
After a discouraging start and similarly dismal performance as co-hosts in 2012, both times finishing bottom of the group, four years later Poland surprisingly reached the quarter-finals.
Lewandowski & Co held rivals Germany to a 0-0 draw in the group stage and beat Switzerland in the round of 16.
The fans' growing hopes were dashed in a penalty shootout loss to eventual champions Portugal in the last eight but Poland's overall display in France was better than expected.
Still in high spirits from their 2016 experience, Poland know that this year's tournament is the last chance for the successful generation from the previous Euros to write another joyful chapter in their country's football history.
The teaser for the fans came after the exit five years ago, when a number of Polish players moved clubs in record deals.
Current Lokomotiv Moscow playmaker Grzegorz Krychowiak, then one of Sevilla's key players, moved to Paris Saint-Germain for 27.5 million euros ($33.53 million) before Euro 2016 ended.
Arkadiusz Milik joined Napoli from Ajax Amsterdam in a 32 million euro deal to become the most expensive Polish player in history until current Hertha Berlin forward Krzysztof Piatek's move from Genoa to AC Milan for 35 million euros in 2019.
With Piatek missing from this year's Euros after surgery on a broken ankle, which ended the season for one of Poland's most effective strikers, the attack will very much depend on the Robert Lewandowski-Arkadiusz Milik partnership.
The time for the team's pillars from the previous Euros to bring some more joy, however, is now. Experienced but still in their prime, they may not approach another international tournament with the same potential.
Poland had to change their plans less than two months before the tournament after Bilbao and Dublin were dropped as venues because they could not meet UEFA's criteria for 25% capacity at stadiums due to restrictions over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Poland will now play Slovakia (June 14) and Sweden (June 23) in St Petersburg either side of Spain (June 19) in Seville.
The 3,600 km distance between those cities means longer travelling times that at the Russia World Cup and many fans have decided to support their team in one of the two locations.
Despite what appears a tough group, many Poland supporters believe the team are capable of springing another surprise.
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(Reporting by Anita Kobylinska; Editing by Ken Ferris)