WHEN considering how best to cope with the threat of Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, Gordon Strachan will bow to the simple wisdom expressed by his former manager at Leeds United, Howard Wilkinson.
What Wilkinson advised – and what the Scotland manager is preparing to drum into his players over the course of next week – is try to keep the ball from the obvious danger man.
This could be easier said that done in the case of Lewandowski, who recently scored five goals in little over 11 minutes for Bayern Munich against Wolfsburg and is due to bring his considerable talents to Hampden Park in a critical Euro 2016 qualifier next Thursday night.
While Strachan very deliberately sought to close down questions on Lewandowski, the Polish striker’s recent deeds loom over the countdown to the fixture. Scotland need to win in order to guarantee that the clash with Gibraltar four days later does not become a depressing dead rubber.
Strachan’s centre-half options are Grant Hanley, Russell Martin, Christophe Berra or Gordon Greer, who ruffled Lewandowski’s feathers in Warsaw last year. The versatile Charlie Mulgrew is another contender but, while included in the squad for the forthcoming double-header, there is still a question mark whether the Celtic player will be fit due to a thigh injury.
Lewandowski accused Greer of nearly kicking him out of the first qualifying clash with Poland, which finished 2-2. Strachan accepts the striker is almost certain to do something of note next week. It is up to Scotland to ensure it is not fatal to their qualifying hopes.
“With most top, top players somewhere along the line they’ll do something in a game and that’s going to happen,” he said yesterday. “But I remember Howard Wilkinson talking to us at Leeds once. He was getting asked about playing against all these big, tall players and the sort of problems we might face.
“His answer was if they don’t get any corner kicks then we won’t have a problem. And it’s the same thing for us against Poland. If we keep the ball longer than they have it then the less chance there is of Lewandowski doing something to hurt us.”
Strachan preferred to concentrate on Scots currently doing well, including Steven Naismith. Jordan Rhodes is another who fits the description of a player in form, having scored five times in his last four Blackburn Rovers appearances.
Whether Rhodes can now fit “The System”, as Strachan described it, remains to be seen. Or will the manager alter a way of playing that, while credited with bringing Scotland limited recent success, has still left the side relying on other results to qualify for Euro 2016?
It appears likely he will not deviate from his plans, despite the suspension of James Morrison, a pivotal player, for the game with Poland. “We can’t change it just for the sake of changing, but let’s see who the form players are just now and get on with that,” said Strachan.
Even six points from their last two games offers no guarantee of third place. “I am optimistic, but not blindly optimistic,” said Strachan. “I was in the airport yesterday morning and could see people are up for it. We are ready to go again.”
On Monday, Strachan watched Steven Naismith play in Everton’s remarkable comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at West Bromwich Albion.
Although the player was withdrawn after 72 minutes – shortly before Everton’s second goal – he has already issued a timely reminder to Strachan.
Naismith reacted to the disappointment of not being involved in the recent 3-2 defeat by Germany by scoring a perfect hat-trick for Everton in his very next game against Chelsea.
“It just shows you,” said Strachan. “He was so disappointed he didn’t play against Germany. Life seems horrible, but within five days he is having one of his best days in football ever. He didn’t feel sorry for himself – he went out and did something.”
Strachan won’t consider his own future until after the campaign ends – or until Scotland’s qualifying prospects become clear, whichever is first. He said now was not the time “to think about me”.
He wouldn’t entertain whether this could, potentially, be the last Scotland squad he names? “I am enjoying what I do,” he said. “I am enjoying the people I work with. It has been a great journey. I never thought anytime I would be Scotland manager, Celtic manager or that manager, or winning trophies. When you start at Dundee if you end up running a fish and chip shop in Arbroath, great! But somehow I have ended up here.”
Squad in full:
Craig Gordon (Celtic)
David Marshall (Cardiff City)
Allan McGregor (Hull City)
Christophe Berra (Ipswich Town)
Gordon Greer (Brighton & Hove Albion)
Grant Hanley (Blackburn Rover)
Alan Hutton (Aston Villa)
Russell Martin (Norwich City)
Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic)
Andrew Robertson (Hull City)
Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen)
Steven Whittaker (Norwich City)
Ikechi Anya (Watford)
Scott Brown (Celtic)
Darren Fletcher (West Brom)
James Forrest (Celtic)
Shaun Maloney (Hull City)
James Morrison (West Brom)
James McArthur (Crystal Palace)
Kevin MacDonald (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
Matt Ritchie (Bournemouth AFC)
Johnny Russell (Derby County)
Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)
Leigh Griffiths (Celtic)
Chris Martin (Derby)
Steven Naismith (Everton)
Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn Rovers)