Poland’s Lewandowski the envy of world champions Germany

Polish striker finding his niche with Bayern Munich after several centre-forwards failed to stick with German champions, writes Ian Hawkey

Robert Lewandowski, second right, of Poland attends a training session ahead of the Euro 2016 qualifying match against Germany at Narodowy Stadium on October 10, 2014, in Warsaw, Poland. Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images
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Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich goalkeeper whose credentials as the finest player in his position have been considerably enhanced this year, walked off the pitch after his club’s weekend thumping of Hannover and immediately led the praise for his centre-forward.

“Lewa,” Neuer said, “is one of the best players in the world. And now he’s really starting to get going.”

"Lewa" is Robert Lewandowski, who scored two goals in the 4-0 win over Hannover for the Bundesliga champions. His Bayern teammates are on nickname terms with him after four years in which they regarded him as just about the most powerful rival they came across.

At Borussia Dortmund, who Lewandowski, 26, left for Bayern in the summer, he was twice the spearhead of the team who denied Bayern Munich a league title.

He was last season’s top scorer in the Bundesliga, a season in which every other major prize was claimed by the dominant Bayern, with the league title won by 19 points.

Neuer will have spent the last few days interpreting the signs that Lewandowski is “really starting to get going” as ominous.

On Saturday, in the city of Lewa's birth, Warsaw, he will captain his country, Poland, against the Germany of Neuer and a good sprinkling of other Bayern players in their European Championship qualifier.

For 90 minutes he will not be on nickname terms with any of them, nor with the two or three Dortmund players representing Germany.

Poles like to think that their skipper is “really getting going”, has a momentum.

In his previous international, Lewandowski scored four goals in the 7-0 win over Gibraltar with which they embarked on their campaign to qualify for France 2016.

Poland-Germany is a rivalry with an edge, a contest of neighbours, though the world champions should have little to fear about their path to those finals, even if they drop points on Saturday.

So many teams, 24 in all, will reach the expanded finals that the odd stumble is forgivable.

But if there is one thing Germany would envy Poland, who will target second place in a group also including Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, it would be their centre-forward.

Lewandowski betters anybody Germany coach Joachim Loew can all on for that particular position, though there may have been times during the last two months when Lewandowski wondered how relevant the centre-forward has become in the German football where he earns his living.

At Dortmund, Lewandowski scored 103 goals in 187 senior appearances. He gave a team that were venomous on the break a fabulous target for quick counter-attacking. He shoots with power with both feet and is excellent in the air.

With his back to goal he is a deft protector of possession, expert at bringing advanced midfielders into positions of opportunity.

When Bayern set out their strategy to acquire him for free once his deal with Dortmund expired, they admired not just his goals but his assists: 44 in his years with the club.

But he also joined a club with a peculiar recent history when it came to orthodox centre-forwards.

In the last five years, the Italian Luca Toni, the Germans Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez and the Croatia international Mario Mandzukic have all left Bayern feeling underused or underappreciated to some degree.

The club's emblematic players are their attacking midfielders, which is the focal point of their trademark brand of football, particularly since Pep Guardiola took over as head coach last year, the fluid movement and passing in and around the penalty area.

Mandzukic left for Atletico Madrid miffed, because he felt he was not a key part of Guardiola's Plan A; Gomez departed sensing his lack of importance in a gameplan designed around the diagonal runs and forages of the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze rather than the ball into the powerful target man.

Lewandowski has a broader skills-set than Mandzukic or Gomez, but there have been times in his first two months at Bayern where he has looked uninvolved.

Against CSKA Moscow in the Uefa Champions League last week, he touched the ball less than any other Bayern player during the match. This coming in a team with the lion’s share of possession.

When Neuer praised Lewandowski as “one of the best in the world” three days later, it sounded like a response to some questioning by German pundits about his suitability for the Bayern method.

But when Neuer added that he thought Lewandowski was finding his niche, he may have had an eye on the international break.

And the Germany goalkeeper will not mind too much if there is a low-profile Lewa in Warsaw on Saturday.

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