Defender relishing the challenge of trying to shackle Poland’s in-form striker as Scotland look to boost hopes of play-off spot
Few Scotland supporters would shed a tear if Robert Lewandowski were to trip down the stairs and sprain an ankle when the Polish national football squad disembark at Glasgow Airport this week.
Even before a ball is kicked at Hampden on Thursday night, the Bayern Munich striker has written his name all over the narrative surrounding a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier for the Scots.
It hardly does justice to Lewandowski to call his recent run of form a hot streak. He has netted a staggering 12 goals in his last four games for the German champions, simply adding to the menacing reputation of a player who is also the leading scorer in the cut-throat Group D campaign with ten goals for his country.
But, while many of those hoping Scotland can still secure a place in next month’s play-offs would be far more optimistic if Lewandowski was absent from the Polish line-up, one of the men who is set to directly confront him is relishing the challenge.
Grant Hanley may ply his trade in the English Championship for Blackburn Rovers, a world away from Lewandowski’s Champions League and Bundesliga pedigree, but the Scotland central defender has no fears about their potential head-to-head.
“I will try to enjoy it and relish it,” says Hanley. “That’s why you play football, you want to test yourself against the best. At the moment, his record shows he is definitely one of the best so we will look to enjoy playing against him.
“It’s international football and you are going to come up against players of that quality. So it is no surprise that you come up against a player on the kind of scoring streak he is on at the moment.
“He is a top quality striker. His record in the last few games is pretty unbelievable. But we are at home, with a full house at Hampden, so we will be focused on our job and what we can do to beat them. It is going to be difficult for Poland to come to Hampden.”
Hanley was sidelined by injury when Scotland held Poland to a 2-2 draw in Warsaw last year, an evening when Lewandowski failed to get on the scoresheet and was combated effectively by the central defensive pairing of Russell Martin and Gordon Greer.
It was put to Hanley that, if he gets the chance to face Lewandowski this time around, he may look to give him an early physical reminder of his presence.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!,” grinned Hanley. “No, I’d probably say that’s right a wee bit. That’s maybe part of my game. But in international football you are up against players of good quality, so it’s not just about going out there, trying to run after them and kick them. You have to be clever. A lot of thought has to go into what you are doing. There are times in the game when you might have to dive in, but players like that are clever enough and sharp enough to see when you’re coming.
“You are right to say you can’t back off him and give him too much respect. But it is as much about stopping the supply to him as it to just stopping him. We have good quality players ourselves, so we will be focusing on what we can do to score goals at the other end and win the game.
“I think we can take confidence from the last game against Poland. He didn’t score against us that night. But it’s not all about him. Of course you look at him and analyse him, you want to know what you’re going to be up against. You do that no matter what opposition you are facing, whatever your position is.
“In international football, it is just a given that you will come up against players of that quality. It’s just something we have to deal with. We feel we have players they should worry about as well.”
Hanley believes one Scot who could harm Poland if given the opportunity is his Blackburn Rovers team-mate Jordan Rhodes. While not as prolific as Lewandowski recently, Rhodes has scored a still impressive seven goals in his last five games for the Ewood Park outfit.
“Jordan has been on fire recently, I’ve seen it first hand at Blackburn,” added Hanley. “He has been banging them in.
“It’s up to the gaffer to decide who he is going to play on the night. Jordan loves coming away with Scotland and getting as much playing time as he can. He knows you have to work hard and score goals at your club to have a chance of playing for your country.
“That’s what he has been doing, so he has given himself the best chance he can of being involved.”
While Scotland could still retain hope of a play-off place with a draw against the Poles, Hanley believes they must target victory.
“I think we need to win the game,” he said. “Our focus is on getting all three points on Thursday night. We have played well in this campaign but maybe haven’t got a couple of results we deserved.
“If we play in a similar way to how we played against Germany last month, I think that could be enough to win this game.
“The lads showed great spirit against Germany. When you play teams like that, you sometimes need a wee bit of luck. If we play that way again, we will be there or thereabouts.
“It would be agony it we fall short at this stage of the campaign, so we will be going all out to put on a good performance and get a win. I’m still confident we can get to the finals, there’s no doubting that. We can only control what we can control and that is putting in a performance against Poland.
“It’s been good under Gordon Strachan, this campaign has shown that. The lads have been brilliant and we can certainly take positives so far.
“But we are not reflecting on the campaign just yet, because we have a big game on Thursday night.”