The last time Robert Lewandowski played at Wembley, the evening ended with the visitors in red and white deliriously celebrating a great victory. But he was not wearing the Polish national team colours; he was in the yellow and black of Borussia Dortmund, devastatingly defeated by Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League final.
For Lewandowski, Wembley is associated with the biggest disappointment of his career so far. Returning there five months later with Poland, he is immensely determined to take the opportunity to ease his previous painful memories of the stadium. England will have to be exceptionally wary tomorrow night of a dangerous opponent with a little extra motivation.
It is ironic that Lewandowski will be seeking with Poland to make up for a bitter experience with Borussia: normally it is the other way round. With his club, he has in recent seasons become one of the stars of the Bundesliga and Champions League. For his country, one of Europe’s leading strikers has yet to savour any significant success.
The nearest he came was scoring the opening goal of Euro 2012 at the National Stadium in Warsaw. But he failed to find the net again as the Poles went out at the group stage. And there remains some uncertainty among Polish fans about his true capabilities when with Poland he does not have the creative midfield supply line provided at Borussia, first by Shinji Kagawa and now by Marco Reus.
Kagawa got his big-money transfer to Manchester United last year, while Lewandowski remains in Dortmund, for now. Having declined an extension to his current contract, which expires at the end of this season, the Wembley return comes at an important time for the 25-year-old as he seeks what should be the defining move of his career.
Bayern Munich have long been considered favourites for his signature but the Spanish media have reported that Bayern’s new coach, Pep Guardiola, is unconvinced about adding Lewandowski to his attacking options, while Borussia would jump at the chance to prevent him going to a Bundesliga rival – and especially if a January sale could be arranged to avoid losing him for nothing at the end of the season. Might a move to Real Madrid in the winter window happen?
The Spanish press has even specified a figure, with a cut-price fee of €10m-€12m (£8.5m-£10m) being mentioned. For Real it would be a cheaper alternative to chasing Falcao, Luis Suarez or Sergio Aguero to solve their dependence on the unreliable Karim Benzema. And the club president, Florentino Perez, publicly expressed his admiration of Lewandowski when speaking to the player at the Bernabeu after last season’s Champions League semi-final.
The prolific Pole’s four goals in the first leg against Real also prompted the Spanish side’s then manager, Jose Mourinho, to seek to secure the striker’s services, but for Chelsea instead. There have been reports in Polish newspapers that a series of flattering text messages sent to Lewandowski failed to persuade him to join Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, while Manchester United and Arsenal have proved similarly unsuccessful.
Although it is understood that there has only been a tentative verbal agreement reached between Lewandowski and Bayern, he seems reluctant to leave Germany, which is close to Poland both geographically and in lifestyle, and where he has become fluent in the language. But a free transfer to Munich would disappoint those who predicted he would become the most expensive Polish footballer ever, eclipsing Zbigniew Boniek’s move to Juventus in 1982.
The Champions League final defeat and the extended saga over the potential transfer to Bayern have slightly dented Lewandowski’s progress. A recent knee injury has not helped. But all that would be left behind were Lewandowski to score at Wembley and help stop England from qualifying for the World Cup finals, in an echo of the 1973 match that has come to dominate Polish football mythology.
It explains why Lewandowski was so unusually outspoken in the aftermath of the Poles’ own elimination following defeat in the Ukraine on Friday night.
“Let’s not fool ourselves. We’re not a team from the top five or 10 in the rankings. We can’t expect to suddenly play to that level, even if it’s what everyone wants and expects back home,” he said. “It’s difficult to fulfil those hopes. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint why. Perhaps in some situations it’s just down to luck. It’s hard for me to find the right words to explain it. In training it was very different.
“Sometimes I’m just completely perplexed by what we’re lacking as a team. I don’t know what it is, but it’s the difference between winning and losing matches. It was simply the capacity to win that was the difference between us and Ukraine. These are matches where you just have to win. Too many in this qualifying group have slipped away from us and we’ve lost crucial points.
“There are moments when everything seems to be heading in the right direction and our game looks better. But then you get a match like this one with Ukraine.
“Maybe we should have run the game better and things would have looked brighter. I think we do have a better future in prospect. Maybe not necessarily in this exact line-up, but it doesn’t need great changes as we’ve definitely been improving lately. The atmosphere in the squad has been positive recently and I think we’re progressing along the right lines. I still hope it won’t take an eternity for improvement to come.
“I’d love it if the better future was here tomorrow. All we need is one good chance to score and win 1-0. I don’t need many scoring opportunities. One good chance and I’d back myself to take it.”
Lewandowski dismissed suggestions in Poland that he is too nice and too delicate to lead the national side, whether as captain or playing as a lone striker. More than any other player, he tried to lift the squad’s mood for the London trip, arguing: “We might not have any chance of advancing to the World Cup finals now, but we’ve got another occasion ahead of us when we’ll be representing our country. So we’ll want to show our capabilities to the best of our ability.
“We’re coming to England now. We’re very aware that we’ll have huge support from a great number of our fans who we hear are going to the game. We’ll be playing for our pride and we feel we owe our fans to give them something to cheer about again at Wembley. But we certainly won’t be the favourites for this match.”
Lewandowski did not find the target in the 1-1 draw with Roy Hodgson’s side in Warsaw a year ago, but at least his one-match record against England is better than his tally at Wembley of played one, lost one, scored none. If he manages to change that this time the recriminations in England will match those of 1973 –and end 40 years of Poland waiting to add to its part in Wembley’s history.
Lewandowski: The Lowdown
Robert Lewandowski almost signed for Blackburn Rovers from Lech Poznan in 2010 but Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud scuppered the deal. His flight was cancelled and the striker joined Dortmund instead.
Lewandowski’s wife, Anna Stachurska, is a black belt in karate and finished third in the 2009 World Cup. They are commonly referred to as the “Polish Beckhams”.
The forward comes from a strong sporting background. His father was a judo champion and his mother played volleyball professionally.
Legia Warsaw, Lewandowski’s first club, allowed him to leave at 17 because medics said health problems would prevent him from playing at the elite level.