Lewandowski and Messi lead Poland and Argentina in clash of styles | World Cup 2022

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the sharpest of them all? On Wednesday night all eyes at Stadium 974 will be drawn, inexorably, to football’s version of a beauty contest: can Lionel Messi’s rich attacking gifts guide Argentina into the knockout phase or might Robert Lewandowski’s uncanny efficiency in front of goal enable Poland to eclipse the Group C favourites?

“We rely on these great strikers but an individual cannot win alone,” Czesław Michniewicz, Poland’s head coach, said on Tuesday. “But it’s not only a battle between Lewandowski and Messi – it’s not tennis, it’s not one on one, they are not serving! Robert needs his teammates, the same as Leo.”

Nonetheless Michniewicz, whose side top group C, one point ahead of Argentina, likens the South American team’s talisman to the famous 80s and 90s Italian alpine ski champion Alberto Tomba. “At our team briefing we talked about Alberto Tomba on the slope; he was able to avoid everyone,” the 52-year-old said. “So I need to put my players in positions to make a difference because, if not, Messi will score easily. You need more than one person to halt him.”

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The similarities between Tomba’s technical slalom excellence and the PSG forward’s elusive attacking manoeuvring have led to Poland’s players debating how to stop “Messi dancing between the poles” as they ponder the best way of preventing him leading Argentina’s dressing room in a celebratory post-match jig of joy.

So how, precisely, can they rein in a player who has scored 93 goals in 167 international appearances? Michniewicz turned realistic and rhetorical. “Playing Argentina you have to prepare for when you concede and to avoid panic when that happens,” he said. “How to stop Messi is a great question. The world has been thinking about it for several years and I don’t think we’ll find an answer. At 35 he says this is his last World Cup so I expect he’ll be very ambitious.”

At 34, Lewandowski accepts it could be his swan song, too, and Argentina’s coach, Lionel Scaloni, is certainly not underestimating the threat posed by a centre-forward who believes a habit of eating desserts before main courses and protecting his slightly stronger right foot by sleeping on his left side, have helped to make him Poland’s record scorer with 77 goals in 136 games.

Lionel Messi wheels away after scoring against Mexico.
Lionel Messi wheels away after scoring against Mexico. Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images

“Lewandowski’s a top player,” Scaloni said, emphatically. He may disagree with the notion that dessert first aids fat burning but he also appreciates the jeopardy “Lewangoalski” could pose his team on a night when they may require victory to guarantee progress. “As a football fan it’s a pleasure and a privilege to see Robert up close. You have to enjoy such a great player … but we’ll be prepared for him.”

Lewandowski’s goal in the 2-0 win against Saudi Arabia last Saturday – incredibly the Barcelona striker’s first at a World Cup – left Poland requiring a point at most to reach the knockout phase. Argentina, meanwhile, remain in slight shock after their Group C opening 2-1 defeat against Saudi Arabia. Scaloni could certainly do with Messi adding to the penalty he scored against the Saudis and the goal he registered in the rather more reassuring 2-0 win against Mexico.

“I know all of Argentina counts on Messi,” Michniewicz said. “We’ll respect him but we will still believe we can win.”

Given that Argentina had gone 36 games undefeated before slipping up against Saudi Arabia that may be a tall order but Lisandro Martínez, Scaloni’s Manchester United defender, did not sound overly confident.

“Poland’s a very tough opponent and Lewandowski’s a top player,” he said. “Lewandowski moves so well, he’s so dynamic. We know we have to remain focused throughout the 90 minutes.

“But we have to trust ourselves and our football. We were very anxious before the Mexico match because we knew it was all or nothing. We know what we’re capable of but we also know we haven’t reached our best level yet. But we’re trying. We have to remain calm, give it our all and show the style we are known for.”

The Messi/Lewandowski subplot is amplified by the pair’s careers having often run along parallel lines. Although a very different sort of forward, Poland’s captain effectively replaced Messi at the Camp Nou after the latter’s departure for PSG and, despite the pair having not always seemed exactly best friends when competing for individual awards, there is talk that these two attacking gladiators could yet be united for one last hurrah at Barcelona.

“When Messi was there I went to Barça so many times to see him,” says Michniewicz. “We should all be excited to play against him in a match where the stakes are high. This is a wonderful time – but I want to leave happy.”

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