ROBERT Lewandowski is to Poland what Gareth Bale is to Wales and Cristiano Ronaldo is to Portugal. Not only is he their best player, he sometimes seems like their only one, which rather puts into perspective Scotland’s 1-0 triumph in Warsaw seven months ago. A knee injury meant that he wasn’t playing that night, but he will be on Tuesday, when the countries reconvene in the same city, this time for a Euro 2016 qualifying match.
Scotland’s attempt to do in a competitive game what they did in a friendly last season will be complicated by form, conditions, even the law of averages, but the biggest difference could be the 26-year-old Bayern Munich striker. Before Poland’s match against Germany yesterday, he had scored 23 times in 62 international appearances, four of them in their group opener against Gibraltar.
Of course, he is not in the same bracket as Ronaldo – who is? – but neither are Poland on a level with Portugal. The parallel is that both teams have come to rely heavily on their most influential player, an individual with the potential to win matches almost single-handedly. With Lewandowski in their ranks, Scotland’s next opponents will be altogether more dangerous than they were in March.
“I feel he makes a huge difference to them,” says Mark McGhee, the Scotland assistant manager, pictured below. “It’s like listening to Chris Coleman talking about Wales with or without Gareth Bale and the effect his presence has on everyone around him. He is obviously a star player for them and there is also the impact it can have on the opposition, knowing they have a player of that stature.
“So I think Lewandowski does make such a difference to them and I don’t think we were kidded by the fact we got the result over there. We were well aware of the fact he wasn’t playing and, in our heads, we discounted the achievement against that.”
Lewandowski’s biggest asset is his lethal finishing, but he is lauded also for his work-rate and for his ability to shield the ball under pressure, a technique that introduces team-mates, especially midfielders, to the attack. Only the other day, Joachim Löw, the Germany coach, described him as “an exceptional footballer, the complete player”.
In the Bundesliga, he hasn’t quite hit the form that earned him a high-profile move to Bayern Munich in the summer. For his previous club, Borussia Dortmund, he became one of the hottest properties in European football with 103 goals in 187 appearances, a total that helped them to win two consecutive titles and reach the final of the Champions League.
This season, he has made a relatively slow start to his career in Munich. Before scoring two goals in a 4-0 win against Hannover last weekend, he had netted only twice in nine appearances, prompting fears that his form in the Ruhr Valley would not be replicated. He has drawn a blank in each of Bayern’s two Champions League games.
“I think he has still to prove himself,” says McGhee, whose days as a striker included a spell with Hamburg. “If he proves himself at Bayern Munich and he maintains the level they have been achieving then he’ll be proving himself to be a top striker. I’m not so sure we have seen enough of him in those really big games to know for sure as of yet. Bayern Munich don’t make many mistakes though and they’ve invested a lot in him.”
For many, the problem is not so much Lewandowski as his new coach, Pep Guardiola, who has a reputation for bringing the worst out of traditional No.9s. The Spaniard’s patient passing game is already supposed to have done for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto’o and Mario Mandzukic, who openly complained about Bayern’s system last season. “Let’s be honest, the style Guardiola wants at Bayern doesn’t suit me,” Mandzukic said. “No matter how much I try, I can’t get the best of myself.”
Mandzukic has since moved to Atletico Madrid, replaced by a player with comparable attributes. Lewandowski, who signed a five-year deal in the summer, is from the same mould as his predecessor, a target man who likes to get on the end of crosses. There are unlikely to be many of those under Guardiola.
Encouragingly, Scotland’s central defence has already dealt capably with Mandzukic, who failed to score in Croatia’s two matches against Gordon Strachan’s side last year. McGhee sees no reason why they cannot be equally successful against Poland’s centre-forward.
“Our defence have seen off Mandzukic already so I wouldn’t imagine they’ll have any fears about facing Lewandowski,” says McGhee. “I think they are of a similar level. They are in the next batch below the top level.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m not so sure if Bayern have moved on – it’s one in, one out, very similar. I don’t think they have become weaker, but I’m not sure they have got stronger either. When you see a club signing [Luis] Suarez, you know they are going to become a better team. That’s the case everywhere he has gone. Barcelona will be a better team with him in attack. But I think some sense Bayern have maintained their level rather than upped it.”
For Poland, Lewandowski’s record is impressive, if a little patchy in recent times. After scoring the opening goal at Euro 2012, he struggled to find the net with any regularity, frustrated perhaps by the shortcomings of those around him. In the past, he has combined well with his former Dortmund team-mates, Lukasz Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski, but the latter – Poland’s captain – has not played since January, when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. In Blaszczykowski’s absence, Poland’s strongest avenue of attack – down the right wing – has been compromised.
None of which means that Scotland can relax. Cutting off the supply line to Lewandowski is still a priority. He cannot score goals if he doesn’t receive the ball in the first place, which means closing down crosses and asking full-backs to double-team in the wide areas. “That’ll be a major part of what we do over the couple of days leading up to the game,” says McGhee.
“You have to give him absolute respect because he is among the top dozen in Europe at the moment. We have to give him a lot of attention. We already know his strengths and we are well informed as to what to expect and where he will be on the pitch. So we’ll pass that information on to our players.”
In their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, Poland finished fourth behind England, Ukraine and Montenegro, with just two points more than Moldova. While they were third seeds in Group G for the Euro 2016 qualifiers – Scotland were fourth – they are ranked 70th in the world, 41 places below Strachan’s men.
That said, they will be at home on Tuesday, backed by a noisy support, and they know what makes Scotland tick. Unlike Georgia, they will line up in a formation similar to Strachan’s, which means that the result could hinge on the outcome of individual battles. “It’ll be more of a head to head, man against man, can we be better than them?” says McGhee.
Scotland have to believe that the answer is yes, even in central defence, where they will be confronted by a formidable opponent.