Poland need Robert Lewandowski to find his scoring boots vs. Ronaldo & Co.
MARSEILLE, France -- Robert Lewandowski had just completed the third match of his Euro 2016 goal drought and, inevitably given the demand for instant results in this day and age, a mini-inquest began. It did not help that he had missed an early sitter for Poland in their win over Ukraine, the kind of chance he buries without a thought for Bayern Munich and -- usually -- his country. The concern was beginning to grow but, as they prepare for a quarterfinal with Portugal a week on, the postmatch words of his manager Adam Nawalka stick in the mind.
"He is doing a lot of fantastic work [and] has a great influence," Nawalka said. "He plays in a supportive way in every positive element of the match and sacrifices his individual good for the team. It is just a matter of time for him to score."
Perhaps the latter point was optimistic, as Lewandowski drew another blank in open play during Poland's round of 16 win over Switzerland before, hearteningly, converting his spot kick coolly in the shootout.
But Nawalka's words provided food for thought. As Poland get closer to the final and the margins, especially against as practiced a tournament side as Portugal, get slimmer, the pressure becomes greater for their talisman to re-don his shooting boots. Opportunities to score have been limited apart from that shot against the Ukrainians, when he lifted over from six yards with the goal at his mercy. But Lewandowski's wider role for the team deserves credit.
It is no coincidence that many of the best chances in what has, despite their impressive results, been a profligate Poland performance so far have fallen to Lewandowski's attacking companion, Arkadiusz Milik. The Ajax forward is a fine player but should have scored several more than his sole strike, the group stage winner against Northern Ireland, so far.
Much of the space he and the rest of Poland's attackers, such as Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki, have received has arisen exactly because of their opponents' focus on Lewandowski, who has often been doubled up on and has found himself on the end of some rough tackles. Nawalka has a point: In this tournament Lewandowski has taken one for the team, receiving the kicks, the grapples and the shirt tugs to let others play.
While Lewandowski finds space easy to come by at Bayern Munich, for whom he scored 42 goals in all competitions last season, that is largely because of the attention on his world-class array of teammates. The movement of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thiago Alcantara, Kingsley Coman, Mario Gotze, among others, makes him just one of their clear threats. For Poland, Lewandowski is the star. While they are a highly capable all-round side, and will be a genuine contender for the trophy should they win in Marseille on Thursday, their supporting cast does not quite have Bayern's intimidating feel. It is reasonable, therefore, that opponents concentrate on Poland's most obvious threat.
That has certainly made Milik's life easier, with Lewandowski often dropping deep to do dirtier work while Milik runs beyond to take advantage of space in behind. A good example of this occurred when Milik was released by a superb Lewandowski flick early in the Ukraine match.
But even if it is paying off for Poland now, there is a feeling that Lewandowski will have to conjure up more if they are going to further their interest in Euro 2016. The number of chances will lessen against Portugal and then, should they make it to the semifinals, probably Belgium. In a one-off situation you would bank on Lewandowski far more heavily than his younger colleague; somehow, Poland need to find a way to get him in front of goal more often when a stingy Portuguese defence needs prising open.
As Nawalka put it: "You could say that [Lewandowski] is like a steam-powered locomotive in our team."
Nobody doubts that but, if Lewandowski is to carry Poland any further along the railroad to the Henri Delaunay Trophy, he will have to upgrade to TGV status quickly.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.