If Poland coach Adam Nawalka thought beating world champions Germany in October and sitting in top spot after four games in Group D might grant him an easy ride in the build-up to tomorrow’s European qualifier against Ireland, he was wrong.
Nawalka has had a stressful week, with two main issues taking up his time: The goalkeeper debate — like in Ireland, but with three decent first-choice options as opposed to two — and a controversial subplot behind the absence of recently deposed captain Jakub Blaszczykowski.
Dortmund winger Blaszczykowski missed all of last year through injury and was visited by Nawalka, who told him that his former team-mate ‘Lewy’ would replace him with the armband. Blaszczykowski was not happy, reportedly because he does not get on with Robert Lewandowski.
Nawalka asked Blaszczykowski to come to the press conference that confirmed Lewandowski as captain, and he refused. He did not answer phone calls from Nawalka and Lewandowski. And he was not picked for this squad.
Nawalka is confident that he has enough leaders, though. Lewandowski is a popular skipper and his vice-captain is Kamil Glik, who is captain at Torino and, at 27, is the second-youngest skipper in Serie A.
“If we can beat Ireland, our path to France will open up,” said Glik this week.
The true source of confidence in the Polish camp comes not just from having Lewandowski; it is his strike partner, 21-year-old Arkadiusz Milik, that is causing the real buzz. Milik has scored 23 goals in 30 games for Ajax, where he is on loan from Bayer Leverkusen. The Dutch side have an option to buy and it looks like they will take it.
“Our team needs both strikers playing together and in the near future, they can form one of the deadliest attacks in Europe,” said Poland technical director Tomasz Iwan.
Milik has settled quickly into international football — he has scored three goals in this campaign, including the opener against Germany — and that’s down to Nawalka, who was his coach at Gornik Zabrze in 2011. The pair get on well, and Milik is a willing learner.
He has decent teachers at Ajax, where the assistant coach is Dennis Bergkamp. First-team coach Frank de Boer has compared him to previous Ajax stars Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Luis Suarez. His emergence could not have come at a better time in Lewandowski’s career as well.
Lewandowski has scored at least 28 goals in each of his last three seasons but in this one, his first at Bayern, he has scored 17 in 36 games. Finding the net is no longer his primary function in Pep Guardiola’s side. This season Lewandowski has changed his game.
“He is a much more intelligent forward, which is the way Guardiola changes his players,” explained Gazeta Wyborcza journalist Michal Zachodny.
“He was a counter-attacking forward able to run onto ball, dribble or play others into space, but now he has better understanding of space, of the importance of making space for others, of movement and playing one-touch football.” Skills that works best when dovetailing with another natural striker.
Most opposition defenders are so focused on keeping Lewandowski quiet that he is now able to make runs out of the danger zone to create space for Milik. This was apparent in the 2-2 draw against Scotland, when Lewandowski was the subject of heavy-handed treatment from the visitors, while Milik was allowed space to cut in from the left wing to score Poland’s second goal.
“They understand each other’s role, and their recent form makes them the strongest part of this team,” said Zachodny.
Lewandowski has fond memories of Dublin: He scored in a 3-2 win over Ireland in 2008, in his second appearance for the national team. “Time flies already; now I have more responsibility and we are determined to get the result we want.” If that means allowing someone else to carry the scoring burden, then so be it.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved