Robert Lewandowski did something perverse during Bayern Munich’s final Bundesliga match of the season.
In the 28th minute against Hannover last month the striker darted away from defenders and into prime scoring position, showing typically keen predatory instincts. Yet when the ball came towards him he did his utmost to dodge it, allowing it to continue into the net for someone else to get the goal instead, namely Mario Götze.
Lewandowski had already scored in the game and had secured himself another Bundesligatop-scorer award but insatiability is a defining trait of top strikers, so breaking stride to avoid a tap-in seemed an unnatural act. Yet there was a good reason for Lewandowski’s generosity.
Two good reasons, actually. First, the striker knew the match was probably Götze’s last home game for Bayern, as the club have said they will not stop him if he wants to move this summer in search of a regular start before a transfer this summer. Götze had gone seven months without scoring before the Hannover game so Lewandowski, like a caring team-mate, did not try to pinch his goal.
Flushed with fresh confidence, the midfielder scored again in the second half. That was the first time he had scored twice in a game since September, when, as Lewandowski was aware, Götze struck two goals in a 3-1 win for Germany over Poland. With Poland also paired with Germany at Euro 2016, perhaps Lewandowski’s compatriots would have preferred it if he had been less noble against Hannover last month.
But that brings us on to the second reason why Lewandowski did not mind giving Götze a morale boost: he has confidence in Poland’s ability to outgun anyone, even in-form world champions. On Thursday in Paris he and his countrymen will try to do just that.
When Poland beat Germany 2-0 in September 2014 – their first victory over their giant neighbours – it was generally seen as evidence of a post-World Cup hangover for Joachim Löw’s men. But it was also a sign of a Poland side on the rise. The Poles had failed to reach the World Cup, finishing below Montenegro in a qualifying group topped by England, but since then they have found a new method and new belief, and young attacking talents are blooming around Lewandowski.
During qualification for this tournament Poland scored more than anyone else in Europe – and nine more than Germany in the same group. Northern Ireland did well to restrict them to a one-goal win last Sunday but that victory was Poland’s first at the European Championship and overcoming that mental barrier should help ensure it is not the last. They have the firepower to go far in France.
At the start of the qualifying campaign the emerging brilliance of 22-year-old Arkadiusz Milik convinced Poland’s coach, Adam Nawalka, to deviate from his previous plan and the general European trend by deploying two strikers. Milik and Lewandowski have formed a deadly understanding, each one’s movement and passing complementing the other and enabling them to embellish impressive strike-rates. Lewandowski’s 13 goals during the qualifiers mean his tally now stands at 34 goals in 77 internationals, while Milik’s winner against Northern Ireland, rifled into the net with his high-precision left foot, took his haul to 11 in 27.
The duo are supported by a dynamic cast of midfielders, who, along with both full-backs, are quick to join in attacks. With the powerful Grzegorz Krychowiak providing the platform, Poland’s midfield is comfortable enough in possession to enjoy the lion’s share of it against most teams and their emphasis is on using it fast and efficiently. Remarkably they now have a 19-year-old with enough maturity to dictate the timing.
Bartosz Kapustka scored on his debut for his country in September’s 8-1 win over Gibraltar but his place in the finals seemed in doubt a few weeks later following a fight outside a nightclub. The teenager, though, rang Nawalka to plead for leniency and the coach decided against a draconian punishment, knowing the whole team would have suffered. On the pitch Kapustka has a precocious feel for being in the right place at the right time and making the right decisions.
He is so shrewd and skilled that he is at ease in a variety of positions, with Nawalka even using him at full-back in the 5-0 pre-tournament victory over Finland. He was stationed on the left of midfield against Northern Ireland but used that as a base to influence proceedings all over the pitch, vindicating Nawalka’s decision to start him ahead of Kamil Grosicki, a useful winger with a particularly fine delivery. With Jakub Blaszczykowski gradually returning to form on the right, and the 22-year-old schemer and Liverpool target Piotr Zielinski available on the bench, the supply lines to Milik and Lewandowski are difficult to close down. Germany, granted, are better equipped than most to do so but know from the qualifiers – during which Kapustka did not play - that even if they enjoy the majority of possession, they will remain vulnerable to Polish counter-attacks. Poland tend not need as many chances as Germany do to score. Thomas Müller may be prolific but he is best when working around a specialist striker, which Götze is not.
There was a time when the sight of the Polish-born Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose in a Germany shirt saddened Poland fans. But now the fact Podolski is still in the Germany squad and Klose has not been replaced makes Poland even more optimistic about what Lewandowski, Milik and co can achieve.
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