It hasn’t taken too long for Poland’s head coach to give up the pretence that his team aren’t completely reliant on Robert Lewandowski to supply their goals.
Paulo Sousa only came into the job back in January and, given the outrageously prolific Bayern Munich striker has scored nine goals in his eight matches since, there isn’t too much point denying it.
‘We want to compete against the best but we know we don’t have the same level as England,’ Sousa said ahead of Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Warsaw.
Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring in Poland’s World Cup qualifying win over San Marino last Sunday evening – he now has a whopping 72 goals in 124 international matches
The in-form Polish striker also scored with a towering header against Albania last week
‘If they lose a player, they have two or three of the same level. Here, it’s just Robert.
‘As a manager, you talk about the team but it’s true there is a big difference between Robert’s level and the others. He knows with the national team he needs to do four, five, six times more than he does at Bayern.’
Sousa’s comments are remarkable when you dwell on them. Rarely does a manager admit to one of his players being head and shoulders above everyone else in the team because it generally isn’t good for morale.
But in Poland’s case, facts speak for themselves. Lewandowski’s two goals in Sunday’s 7-1 thrashing of San Marino took his international tally to 72 in 124 matches. He is their all-time leading goalscorer.
The next highest goal return in their current squad comes from midfielder Piotr Zielinski of Napoli – he has seven.
It will fall to England’s centre backs John Stones (left) and Harry Maguire to keep him at bay
Lewandowski is an expert at getting in between central defenders to score his goals
The other two strikers in the squad are Karol Swiderski of Greek club PAOK (three goals in nine internationals) and Adam Buksa of MLS outfit New England Revolution (four in two games, of which three came against San Marino).
So England could be forgiven for focusing all their attention on stopping Lewandowski on Wednesday night and not digging too much deeper.
They have come off unscathed from previous meetings with Lewandowski, unlike the majority of nations he has faced.
Both games were in qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Despite Lewandowski, then a Borussia Dortmund striker, playing the full 90 minutes he couldn’t hit the target in both a 1-1 draw in Warsaw and 2-0 loss at Wembley.
Given Lewandowski’s sensational club form last season, when he beat Gerd Muller’s long-standing record of 40 Bundesliga goals, England got away with one when a ligament issue ruled him out of March’s return game in London.
Lewandowski scores with an acrobatic effort in Bayern’s match with Monchengladbach in May
The Polish striker deploys a similar technique to score in Bayern’s game with Arminia Bielefeld
LEWANDOWSKI v ENGLAND ODDS
To score first: 5/1
To score anytime: 23/10
To score a hat-trick: 125/1
Odds courtesy of Betfair
England needed all their battling qualities to win that one 2-1 but their latest stop-off on the road to Qatar will be even tougher with Poland’s chief marksman back in the team.
The 33-year-old, whom Bayern refused to countenance selling over the summer, says he is fitter and sharper than ever and that is borne out by seven goals in four club games to start the season.
‘I’ve started preparing for the season on a higher level than usual. I feel great physically and mentally,’ Lewandowski said last week.
So how do England’s likely centre-back pairing of Harry Maguire and John Stones go about keeping him quiet?
They could do worse than watching the highlights reel of Lewandowski’s 41 league goals last season and take heed of the subtle ways in which he continuously gets in between centre-half pairings.
In Lewandowski’s (No 9) first goal of 41 in the Bundesliga last season, scored against Schalke, we see how he takes up a position of anticipation in between three defenders waiting for the cross to come in from the right flank
With a perfectly-timed dart, Lewandowski is now placed between two defenders to head in
Admittedly, his Bayern team-mates are capable of providing better service than those with his national team but the striker’s ability to sneak in undetected between defenders to meet a cross with a header or shot within 10 yards of goal is very impressive.
Lewandowski will lurk in and around the six-yard box, sometimes standing offside, often giving the little stutter seen on his penalties, before peeling off a defender or between them in anticipation of the cross with perfect timing.
The psychological effect on defenders who look until the last second to have him closely-marked must be devastating so Maguire and Stones must communicate, gang up on him and leave nothing to chance.
We see a good example of Lewandowski’s smart penalty box movement in this goal scored against Eintracht Frankfurt last season. First, he positions himself near the penalty spot
He sprints to the six yard box in anticipation of the cross but then has to check his movement
Now inside the six-yard box, Lewandowski uses his strength to keep the defender at bay
At the last moment, he drifts back into space to turn home the cross that eventually arrives
It isn’t just the centre-backs, either. If Lewandowski thinks an advantage can be gained by slipping to the back post and splitting a right-back not quite in the correct position and a centre-back, he will.
Reece James knows precisely the kind of damage the Polish striker can do – he was at right-back for Chelsea in August last year when Lewandowski scored twice and created two more in a 4-1 Bayern win in the Champions League.
Maguire is a strong ball-winner in the air and his aerial battles with Lewandowski will be an interesting theme on Wednesday night.
In this game with Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski (No 9) can be seen running into the box as the ball is swung in from the left-hand side
Although Lewandowski has made the run, his marker appears to be in a strong position
Yet the striker’s determination to reach the ball first is evident as he wins the header to score
England were certainly defensively sound at Euro 2020 and they weren’t troubled by Hungary last week, so they’ll approach their task with confidence.
But Lewandowski is European football’s most reliable striker right now and keeping a close rein on him will mean England can take a giant stride towards qualification.