SCOTLAND’s visit to Poland on Wednesday night is likely to be a cagey affair in which neither side give much away.
While that is good news for the coaches, who are keen to keep their powder dry ahead of two meetings in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, it is not so handy for the locals, who are demanding answers to a couple of burning questions.
The first is whether Adam Nawalka, who took charge of Poland in October, can tease out of Robert Lewandowski, his star player, the kind of form that he produces for Borussia Dortmund. The second is whether he is right to recall Ludovic Obraniak, the French-born midfield player who has proved to be a divisive figure at international level.
These, more than anything, are the matters on Polish minds ahead of the friendly in Warsaw.
First, Lewandowski. How, they ask, can one of Europe’s most formidable strikers, a free-scoring 25-year-old who will join Bayern Munich in the summer, be so mediocre for his country? There is no shame in netting 18 goals in 60 appearances for Poland, as he has done since making his debut in 2008, but the ratio compares unfavourably with his 67 in 188 for Dortmund, his 32 in 58 for Lech Poznan or even his 21 in 32 for Znicz Pruszkow. Since scoring the first goal of the Euro 2012 finals, co-hosted by Poland, he has netted only three at international level, two of them penalties against San Marino.
It is a mystery that exercises the nation more with each passing month. Except that it’s not a mystery, not if context is applied to the statistics. Lewandowski is one of those players who finds that the service on which he thrives with one of Europe’s leading clubs is not nearly so plentiful with his country. There is no Marco Reus in the national side, no Ilkay Gundogan.
He does have Dortmund’s Jakub Blaszczykowski behind him, but the Poland captain tore an anterior ligament last month and is out for the rest of the season. Lewandowski also has in his team Lukasz Piszczek, the Dortmund right back, who has combined with Blaszczykowski to ensure that Poland’s best work is down that side. But neither of those two players has brought out the best in their much-vaunted team-mate.
“Lewandowski is without doubt one of the best players in the world,” says Jan Tomaszewski, the former Poland goalkeeper, now a pundit. “The problem he faces is that, playing for Borussia, he is great, because everyone knows who is where, and what he will do. When Lewandowski plays with the national team, he doesn’t know who he’s going to be playing with, or how he’s going to be playing. How is Lewandowski supposed to shoot a goal if the players around him are always different?”
Nawalka’s job is to identify, and settle upon, a formula that rectifies the problem. It is a challenge that was beyond the last head coach, Waldemar Fornalik, who was sacked after his team finished behind England, Ukraine and Montenegro in their World Cup qualifying group.
Fornalik left his successor with a demoralised squad. Although Poland were in pot three of the Euro 2016 draw, they are ranked 70 in the world, 36 places below Scotland, who came out of pot four. While results achieved before Nawalka’s arrival are of limited relevance, it is a bit early to expect from him a transformation.
Capped 35 times by Poland, including at the 1978 World Cup finals, he started his international managerial career in November. His first game was a 2-0 defeat by Slovakia, his second a scoreless draw with the Republic of Ireland. His other two, in January, were experimental matches in Abu Dhabi, where his team beat both Norway and Moldova.
The most significant development since Nawalka took over has been the re-introduction of Obraniak, who retired from international football only last May. Citing “mistreatment”, the player said that he no longer wanted to work under Fornalik, who was one of the many he has rubbed up the wrong way.
There is no denying Obraniak’s ability. Born and brought up in France, he played well for Metz, Lille and Bordeaux before joining Werder Bremen in January. An attacking left-sided midfield player, he played in all three of Poland’s matches at Euro 2012 and has the kind of game-changing ability that the team are lacking.
Obraniak, though, is not popular. The rap is that he only took out Polish citizenship in 2009 – thanks to a grandfather from Pobiedziska – when it became clear that he wasn’t good enough to play for France.
He is accused of not trying hard enough to learn the language, and of not being committed to the national side. His body language has not been that of a team player. After he was sent off in a World Cup qualifying match against Montenegro, there was an unseemly war of words with Blaszczykowski, who said what many others were thinking. The suspicion is that the captain, and some of his team-mates, have yet to be persuaded that Obraniak should be back in the squad. Nawalka’s decision to recall him is quite a gamble.
Never mind the sideshows. Artur Boruc, the former Celtic goalkeeper, and his reunion with Messrs Brown, Mulgrew and Marshall, will doubtless dominate the agenda before this week’s friendly – and indeed the Euro 2016 qualifiers between these sides – but the big issues, the ones which could determine Scotland’s fate, are to be found elsewhere in this unpredictable Poland team.