Lewandowski still the key for Poland’s World Cup hopes

Poland’s World Cup prospects are not solely hinged on Robert Lewandowski.

Few other players, however, will carry as much weight of expectation.

The 34-year-old Barcelona striker has seamlessly transferred his attacking prowess from Bayern Munich to the Spanish league.

Lewandowski set Poland on its way to the World Cup in March with the opening goal in the 2-0 playoff win over Sweden, when he took his tally for the national team to 75 in 129 appearances.

But time is running out for Lewandowski to steer Poland through another fruitful period like Grzegorz Lato and Zbigniew Boniek, who led Polish soccer’s golden era in the 1970s and 1980s. Poland played in four straight World Cups, finishing third in West Germany in 1974 and in Spain in 1982.

Lewandowski, Poland’s captain, has scored wherever he has played, racking up an incredible 312 goals in 384 Bundesliga appearances for Bayern and Borussia Dortmund.

WORLD CUP WAITING

There’s only one place Lewandowski hasn’t scored — at a World Cup.

Lewandowski failed to get on the mark in his only previous tournament appearance in Russia in 2018, when Jan Bednarek and Grzegorz Krychowiak got the team’s only goals as Poland was eliminated from the group stage after losses to Senegal and Colombia. The already eliminated Poland then beat Japan in its final game.

Lewandowski is Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz’s first name on the team sheet. The only questions to be answered are who play alongside him — and how.

“There is no point in discussing whether Robert needs to have a second striker next to him. It’s nonsense,” Michniewicz said after Poland’s 1-0 victory in Wales in September. “After all, at clubs such as Bayern or Barcelona, he can play as the only striker and score hundreds of goals. We simply have to provide proper service.”

TOUGH RIVALS

Poland faces Chile for a final World Cup warmup on Nov. 16, before opening its campaign in Group C against Mexico on Nov. 22. Poland then plays Saudi Arabia four days later before a potentially decisive final game against Argentina on Nov. 28.

The war in Ukraine has been evident as a backdrop to Poland’s World Cup preparations. Lewandowski has been wearing a captain’s armband in the Ukrainian flag’s colors, while Poland has served as a venue for Ukrainian teams to play “home” games in European competitions since Russia invaded the country on Feb. 24.

Poland was scheduled to play Russia in Moscow in a World Cup qualifying playoff, but refused to take part in protest against the war. FIFA subsequently excluded Russia from the competition, giving Poland a bye into the next round, where it defeated Sweden.

Also, defender Maciej Rybus was dropped from the national team by Michniewicz after the player signed a two-year contract with Russian team Spartak Moscow on June 11.

INJURY CONCERNS

Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny is the team’s starter but he has had to contend with injuries in recent months, limiting his playing time for Juventus. The 32-year-old Szczęsny has made more than 200 Serie A appearances, after 132 in the Premier League.

After 66 appearances for Poland, Szczęsny’s experience is a valued asset for the team. But if his injury problems continue, Bologna goalkeeper Łukasz Skorupski, Spezia’s Bartłomiej Drągowski and Copenhagen’s Kamil Grabara are all good options.

Bednarek scored in Poland’s last World Cup appearance and will be expected to form a formidable partnership with the experienced Kamil Glik as the last line of defense.

Krychowiak will lend defensive support from midfield, while attacking midfielder Piotr Zieliński will try conduct play and create chances for Lewandowski. Zieliński is frequently one of Napoli’s top-performers.

However, Lewandowski will remain the key player if Poland is to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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