So far this season, Robert Lewandowski has hit hat-tricks against Benfica and Hertha Berlin. He has scored braces in Barcelona, in Dortmund and at Union Berlin. But perhaps nothing will have sharpened him up as much for Saturday’s Klassiker, the season’s first league clash between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, as what happened on Monday in Paris.
Bayern’s Lewandowski finished second to Lionel Messi in the voting for the 2021 Ballon d’Or, and although he left the gala ceremony in the French capital with the prize for Striker of the Year, he felt so many sympathetic pats on the back for not claiming the main award he cannot help but know many in his profession think he was done an injustice.
Nobody, least of all Lewandowski, would diminish Messi’s claims, it is just that this year seemed to belong more to the prolific Pole. He probably would have won the Ballon d’Or in 2020 when Bayern Munich won the Treble; that year’s award was cancelled because of the pandemic.
In the 2020-21 season, Lewandowski then broke a Bundesliga record dating back to the early 1970s for marksmanship, scoring 41 times in his 29 appearances. This season he is already on 25, across competitions, from 20 games.
Around Bayern, there was genuine bewilderment that Messi pipped their man. “I don’t understand the world any more,” sighed Lothar Matthaus, the former Bayern captain and 1990 Ballon d’Or winner. Alphonso Davies, Lewandowski’s 21-year-old teammate, exclaimed: “To me, it doesn’t make sense. I’d be so mad [angry]!”
Controlled anger may be what Bayern recommend for their striker in his first match as vice-Ballon d’Or. A fired-up Lewandowski might be just what the reigning champions need at what is a crossroads weekend in the defence of their title.
Bayern lead Dortmund by just a point going into the top-of-the-table clash and domestic form is in favour of the hosts. Dortmund may have suffered in the Champions League, where they are already out of contention to reach the knockout phase, but they are on a run of six wins from their last seven league games; Bayern have lost twice, to Eintracht Frankfurt and Augsburg, in the same period.
Bayern will be missing the midfielder and regular provider of high-quality passes for Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, who has been at the eye of a public storm in recent weeks for his reluctance to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Kimmich is self-isolating, having tested positive for the virus. There are doubts over the fitness of Kimmich’s usual partner in the middle, Leon Goteztka. Marcel Sabitzer, who might cover for either, is out with injury.
2021 Ballon d'Or rankings in full
Dortmund will be missing Jude Bellingham, their dynamic teenaged midfielder but have welcomed back their most celebrated young superstar from over a month out with a hip problem. Erling Haaland returned last weekend, and within seven minutes of coming off the bench in the victory at Wolfsburg, volleyed in his 10th goal of the Bundesliga campaign.
Only Lewandowski, with 14 league goals from his 13 games, has more. Haaland has reached double figures from just six starts and his brief substitute appearance at Wolfsburg. That marked a 50th Bundesliga match for the 21 year-old. The goals tally from that half-century? A neat 50.
Haaland, 21, finished 11th in the voting for the 2021 Ballon d’Or. The assumption is that in the decade ahead, he will feature much higher up, many times. Lewandowski, meanwhile, has been urged by his employers to think that, at 33, he still has more chances. “‘Lewy’ reached the summit of football greats a long time ago,” said Bayern chief executive Oliver Kahn, “and he will carry on being a candidate [for the Ballon d’Or] in years ahead.”
But Bayern, German champions for the last 10 seasons, acknowledge that their keenest German rivals, Dortmund, are armed with a striker to compare with Lewandowski, who was lured from Dortmund to Munich in 2014.
In a new documentary following Bayern’s 2020-21 season, ‘Behind the Legend’, there’s footage of how club executives reacted when Haaland, long blonde hair tamed with a headband, scored twice in the first 10 minutes of their last Bundesliga meeting, in March. “He’s a machine,” Hasan Salihamidzic, the sporting director, exclaims to his colleague Kathleen Kruger. “Tomorrow I’m going to call his agent!”
Salihamidzic later explained the remark was light-hearted. So was Kruger’s on-camera reply. “We’ll have to send him to the hairdresser first,” she said.
Fact is, Haaland can wear whatever look he chooses: When he does leave Dortmund, quite likely next summer, he and the selling club will have many suitors and the last thing Dortmund want is to see him teaming up with Lewandowski at a Bayern whose grip on the German title is already so hard to shake.