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WATCH: Are Poland’s chances to win the World Cup slim?
Robert Lewandowski’s the best goal-poaching forward on the planet, but he’s a lot more than that, and his presence means Poland, back in the World Cup after missing out in 2010 and 2014, has an opportunity to do something good.
No telling what that might be — the quarterfinals are in reach if the Orly can get through a tight Group H; more than that would be a surprise — but he’s the surest goalscorer in the tournament, even with Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah in the field.
The 29-year-old Bayern Munich striker is a seven-time Polish player of the year and the greatest talent his country has developed since Grzegorz Lato, Kazimierz Deyna and Zbiginew Boniek spearheaded the legendary national sides of the 1970s and early 1980s. He scored 16 goals of Poland’s 28 goals during the qualifying campaign, setting a European record for World Cup eliminations, and that after netting 13 to tie the European mark in qualifying for Euro 2016.
His numbers are boggling. He’s tallied 126 times in the past three seasons for Bayern Munich, been the Bundesliga’s top scorer three times in the past four years, including last and this season, and he owns Poland’s career strike mark, with 52 in 93 international appearances.
Lewandowski is so automatic that when he went five straight Champions League games without a goal this year, with Bayern crashing out in the semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons, he took the brunt of the criticism. That might seem unfair — Bayern brass certainly claimed so — but he’s responsible for putting the ball into the net, and if he doesn’t do it, production will lag.
He was the fastest foreign player to 100 goals in Bundesliga history and, with 180 over eight seasons with Bayern and, before that, Borussia Dortmund, needs another dozen to tie Claudio Pizarro’s record for career goals in Germany’s top league by a non-German.
He might not get the chance. Real Madrid, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and now Manchester United reportedly are angling for his services next season, and word out of Munich is Lewandowski is frustrated with his playing time. A change of venue might be welcome.
Lewandowski been a prolific goal-getter since his youth, led the Polish third, second and first divisions in goals in successive seasons before heading to Dortmund, where he won two league titles and scored 94 goals in four years. That led to a move to Bayern — on a free transfer; what a deal! — which has won four straight Bundesliga championships with him up front.
He’s evolved into a monster behind the tutorship of some of Europe’s best coaches — Jürgen Klopp at Dortmund and Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti and Jupp Heynckes at Bayern — and has been at his best for the Poles under 1978 World Cup veteran Adam Nawalka’s guidance. The emergence of 23-year-old Napoli playmaker Piotr Zielinski means more chances, which is all a striker asks for.
He’s a complete forward — his generation’s finest example of such — exceptional at getting behind defenses, either beating the backline for balls over the top or ghosting behind defenders to take a feed from midfield. He can score with his right foot, left foot or his head, and although he scores the vast majority of his goals inside the box, every now and then he pulls off something magical: a bristling volley from 30 yards, or five goals in nine minutes, which he accomplished off the bench in a Bayern rout of Wolfsburg nearly three years ago.
He’s got deceptive pace and world-class timing, and his tireless work in the gym has made him one of the strongest, and most sculpted, strikers in the game. His work ethic is legendary, he’s mentally superior, and he’s a complementary talent, too, able to lift the games of the teammates around him.Those are aspects that will be invaluable for the Poles, who head to Russia ranked 10th by FIFA, although nobody — except perhaps their staunchest supporters — grades them among the 10 best teams in the tournament. Group H is wide open, with Colombia and Senegal also capable of advancing to the knockout stage, and Belgium and England likely await in the round of 16. To get to that point and beyond, Lewandowski will need to be at his best.