IN VIEW of the “cup final” nature of tonight’s Euro 2016 qualifying clash with Poland at Hampden Park, it is typical of Scotland’s luck that they should run into someone Gordon Strachan rates as the current best player in the world.
Robert Lewandowski has haunted the minds of the Tartan Army since he embarked on a scoring run that has delivered 12 goals in his last four outings.
Forget Ronaldo and Messi, Lewandowski is the name on everyone’s lips just now.
Strachan realises that it is foolish to seek to deny what is obvious to those with even a vague knowledge of international football: Poland are blessed with a rare talent.
“Poland have a good side with a special player, that’s for sure,” Strachan said. “It would be stupid of me to try to ignore it. You can say for the last five years that Messi and Ronaldo have been the best players in the world. I think he [Lewandowski] has been the best player in the world for the past month. And, if you are the world’s best player even for a month or a week, it’s some accolade. I think most of us would want to be the world’s best player for a week. He has been a top, top, top, top player for the last four years.”
Lewandowski will dominate the thoughts of whoever Strachan selects at centre-back for a fixture that the manager has conceded is probably must-win.
Established pairing Russell Martin and Grant Hanley are the likely choice. However, Gordon Greer could be in contention on account of his having been able to get under the Bayern Munich striker’s skin in Warsaw last year.
Lewandowski accused the Brighton player of trying to kick him out of the 2-2 draw. One tabloid newspaper used a mock-up of the striker’s image in a baby’s bonnet on their back page yesterday after Lewandowski made further references to that night, when he claimed he had his shin pad broken by Greer.
The Pole has urged Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai to clamp down on what he described as Scotland’s “brutal” tactics.
But Strachan yesterday laughed off suggestions his team are overly physical, pointing out that Scotland’s accusers are relying on “fantasy rather than fact”.
The manager arrived at the pre-match press briefing yesterday armed with statistics to support his argument. Strachan produced official Uefa figures stating that Scotland have committed only 80 fouls during the current campaign in comparison to Poland, who have committed 110 – the most in Group D.
Scotland players have been cautioned only 13 times, including Charlie Mulgrew’s two yellow cards against Germany last year, while Poland have earned 15 bookings.
“I am not saying they [Poland] are sinners, I didn’t say that,” said Strachan. “All I said was these are the stats. I asked for that this morning because I thought it would be a theme,” he added.
Strachan pointed out that Lewandowski, and strikers like him, are playing at the best possible time in terms of protection from referees and immaculate pitches. He also pointed out that Lewandowski, for all his complaints, was able to complete the match against Scotland last October. He conceded that Lewandowski might have had a point 30 years ago, when tackles from behind generally went unpunished.
“Anything went in those games,” said Strachan. “But the game has changed, it has been sanitised a lot since then.”
But Strachan knows he cannot let this mini-storm distract from Scotland’s central ambition this evening – to earn three points. He must cope with Ikechi Anya’s departure after the winger returned to Watford yesterday for treatment on a calf strain.
Scotland could conceivably qualify for a play-off place by taking only four points from their last two games, with Gibraltar to come on Sunday. But Strachan promised he has thoughts only of victory: “There are so many permutations to this. Let’s just go for the win, eh?”