Robert Lewandowski is the ultimate team player but Poland will not survive at Euro 2016 unless their captain rediscovers his ruthless streak.
Although Adam Nawalka’s talented team edged past Switzerland on penalties in Saint-Etienne on Saturday to book a quarter-final against Croatia or Portugal, the last four may prove beyond them without harnessing the dormant threat posed by one of the Bundesliga’s most dangerous players.
It was perhaps understandable when a journalist from Portugal, speaking before the first round-of-16 tie, drew parallels between the struggles of his own country’s figurehead and the blanks Lewandowski had fired in three games at this European Championship.
Poland coach Adam Nawalka appeared close to anger when he brushed aside the suggestion.
“I don’t like the comparison and I don’t need the comparison,” he brusquely told a pre-match news conference.
Not without cause was he so dismissive. Lewandowski is that rarest of breeds; a deadly finisher capable of amassing a huge individual haul of goals and yet entirely selfless in the manner in which he applies himself for the good of his team.
The primary function of the 27-year-old, who succeeded Jakub Blaszczykowski as captain in 2014, is not to hit the back of the net, but to provide the fulcrum around which the attack of his national team functions.
The Bayern Munich player sets the tone for Poland’s pressing, harassing and harrying the opposition’s defenders, preventing them from playing out and forcing low-percentage long balls that maximise his team’s chances of regaining possession.
He was at it right from kick-off in Saint-Etienne, charging down Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer and creating a chance his strike partner Arkadiusz Milik should have scored.
When they do have the ball, unlike Portugal and Ronaldo, the first instinct of Nawalka’s team is not to look for the biggest star but to make the right choice, something Lewandowski helps them do organically rather than by force of will, taking up intelligent, effective positions and complimenting the talents around him.
The former Borussia Dortmund frontman and Milik cover an impressive amount of territory in their attempts to pull defences out of position, affording wingers Kamil Grosicki and Blaszczykowski space within which to thrive, as they did to score the first goal on Saturday.
But such was the physical output of the four attackers in the first half against Switzerland, they had little left to offer in a second period dominated by the scorer of a spectacular equaliser, Xherdan Shaqiri, and his resurgent team, Poland unable to stem the tide and clinging on desperately for the shootout.
Nawalka now faces two major challenges in the quarter-final.
The coach must ensure his team do not exhaust themselves playing their aggressive, pressing game in the first half of the match against an opponent likely to have more possession.
And he also needs to find a way to get Lewandowski into dangerous areas where his deadly finishing can be exploited, without undermining the attacking structures that depend on the captain’s altruistic movement, positioning and interplay.
With only five days in which to do so before the last-eight clash at Stade Velodrome, it could prove to be a task beyond the Poland boss and his backroom staff.
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