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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Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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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.”

Robert Lewandowski towers over Qatar as he chases World Cup legacy | World Cup 2022

The army of workers tasked with sweeping mini dust mountains from doorsteps across Doha spend long days endlessly battling the elements. In a city constructed on sand, the gentlest of breezes makes it near impossible to prevent the desert from intruding on an otherwise gleaming capital well accustomed to accommodating forces of nature.

It is playing host to another one right now, in the shape of a striker capable of making the world’s best defenders feel as helpless as Qatar’s street cleaners.

Although Robert Lewandowski spends most days closeted in the team hotel, he is a ubiquitous presence here. Once darkness falls, and it descends early in the Gulf at this time of year, giant images of the Poland captain and record goalscorer illuminate the sides of skyscrapers lining the city’s Corniche.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Thank you for your feedback.

Up in the skies above the Arabian Sea countless stacked Qatar Airways flights circle as they queue to land at Hamad airport. Before takeoff passengers may have been slightly surprised to watch Lewandowski starring in a football-themed safety video.

Whereas his fellow part-time actor, Brazil’s Neymar, is merely seen escorting business-class passengers to their seats, the 34-year-old demonstrates how to pull on a life jacket in the event of an unscheduled landing on water.

Given that responsibility and Lewandowski are no strangers, it seems appropriate casting. “Playing for Poland definitely carries massive pressure,” agrees a striker hoping to guide his country to victory against Mexico in their opening group game on Tuesday. “I’m acutely conscious of the responsibility of meeting our fans’ expectations. They grow with every goal. No matter who we’re playing and what challenges we face, everyone expects me to score – but it’s not always easy.”

He will be shouldering the hopes of, among others, half the clientele of L’Autre, a Polish-Mexican restaurant in London’s Mayfair who know a win would appreciably enhance Czeslaw Michniewicz’s team’s chances of escaping the tournament’s group stage for the first time in 36 years. An evocative photograph of Argentina 1978 hangs proudly on L’Autre’s wall, depicting the scenes when the two countries last met at a World Cup and Poland won 3-1.

Lewandowski pulls off a backheel flick in World Cup qualifying
Lewandowski carries the expectations of a nation on his shoulders. Photograph: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Considering Lewandowski’s age, a repeat could offer him not merely a ticket out of a group also featuring Argentina and Saudi Arabia but an extended last hurrah on the global stage. “I don’t think this will be my last World Cup though,” says a player clearly minded to rage against the dying of the light. “I want to play in the next one too.”

Given that “Lewangoalski” has scored 18 times in 19 appearance for Barcelona this season and remains feted in Germany – where he played under Jürgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund and Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich – it would be unwise to doubt him. Both coaches admired the work ethic of a 6ft 1in forward who did not finish growing until he was 20 and compensated for this late physical development by not only becoming two-footed but expert in the air.

Such dedication paid off handsomely, helping him to 76 goals in 134 Poland appearances and a quintet of coronations as Bundesliga player of the year. Lewandowski’s place in the firmament of the world’s greatest centre-forwards is assured thanks to more than 500 career goals, but something significant is missing from an otherwise near-perfect CV.

Despite that compelling blend of superior movement, stellar technique and sheer power, he is still to score at a World Cup. In mitigation, Poland’s failure to qualify in 2010 and 2014 dictate he has participated in the group stage of only one finals – Russia 2018.

“Russia was one of the biggest disappointments of my career, mostly because we didn’t create any opportunities,” he says. “I didn’t have any chances and that still hurts. That was a failure. To score at a World Cup is a huge dream and I’m going to do everything to make this dream happen.”

Further inspiration is provided by the famous Poland teams of 1974 and 1982 who recorded third-place World Cup finishes, with Grzegorz Lato winning the Golden Boot at West Germany 1974 after scoring seven goals. “I’ll do well to beat Lato – we’re not a team that creates a huge number of chances,” acknowledges Lewandowski.

Lato entered politics after retiring from playing, and Lewandowski is widely lauded for his philanthropy and charity work. It is perhaps partly a consequence of Klopp’s influence as an almost surrogate parent – the striker was only 16 when his father died and he has credited the German with offering him invaluable off-field guidance – that Lewandowski has such a balanced, mature equilibrium on and off the pitch.

Robert Lewandowski player profile
Robert Lewandowski

“Argentina will be our toughest match,” says a man who feels Guardiola taught him fresh and invaluable tactical thought. “But I’ll be very happy to play against [Lionel] Messi. He’s changed football for the better, for ever.”

Although he believes a solid, tactically smart Saudi Arabia should not be underestimated, Mexico represent the immediate challenge. “They’re a tough team who fight all the way to the final whistle and never give up,” he says. “They know how to play at major tournaments. They’ll be a big test. “But we’ll play every match with smiles on our faces and as a unit. Even if it’s very tough I’ll enjoy it.”

The veterans hoping to go out in style at their last World Cup | World Cup 2022

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal

All is not well for Ronaldo at Manchester United after his scolding assessment of the club and its manager, yet he has the chance to write his name into the history books for Portugal in Qatar over the next month. He has won the European Championship, the Nations League and become the top scorer in men’s international football with 117 goals in 191 appearances for Portugal, but he has never played in a World Cup final. At 37 years of age, Ronaldo knows this is likely his final chance at World Cup glory and he will be determined to go out on a high. With his United career likely over, and his legacy at Old Trafford tarnished, his focus is now on firing Portugal to the first World Cup in their history, cementing his spot among the best footballers of all time.

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Messi has already confirmed that he will be retiring from international football after the World Cup. He will hope to do so with a first World Cup winners’ medal around his neck. The 35-year-old secured a first international trophy last year as he played a key role in helping Argentina to the 2021 Copa América and having come so close to World Cup glory in 2014, WhoScored.com’s highest-rated player is seeking to bow out from the international game on the highest of highs.

Will Lionel Messi add a World Cup to the Copa América he won last year?
Will Lionel Messi add a World Cup to the Copa América he won last year? Photograph: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Olivier Giroud, France

France are blessed with incredibly talented frontmen in Giroud, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann but they are all coming towards the end of their international careers. Giroud, at 36 years of age, is unlikely to continue with the national team after the tournament in Qatar draws to a close. The Milan forward is not just chasing World Cup glory, but a spot in the national team’s history books. Giroud is now just two goals short of matching Thierry Henry’s 51 goals at the top of France’s all-time scoring charts, as he looks to play his part in helping the world champions retain their crown.

Karim Benzema, France

Another experienced forward in the France squad, Benzema returned to the national team for Euro 2020, earning his first call-up in over five years in the process. While France’s campaign at the Euros did not go according to plan as they were knocked out by Switzerland at the last-16 stage, Didier Deschamps is hoping the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner still has enough goals in the tank to ensure that France do not go the way of previous defending champions and crash out in the group stage. Injuries have restricted Benzema to just seven league appearances for Real Madrid this season but, with five goals to his name, a lack of regular minutes has not impacted the 34-year-old in front of goal, which bodes well for Deschamps.

Sergio Busquets, Spain

Busquets is still one of the most influential members of the Spain squad, which he underlined at the Euros last year. He was absent from the first two group games, both of which Spain failed to win. When he returned to the side, they went on to reach the semi-finals, only losing to Italy on penalties. Whether he still has the legs to play every three days remains to be seen, but he will be a handy option for Luis Enrique should Spain need to shut games down. With 139 caps, the Spain captain has seen it all, having already won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. Spain face Germany, Japan and Costa Rica in a testing group, so will need his experience.

Manuel Neuer, Germany

Neuer has been Germany’s No 1 since he made his debut in 2009 and there are no suggestions he will be relinquishing his place anytime soon. Given the longevity of goalkeeping careers, the 36-year-old could still have plenty of gas left. A World Cup winner in 2014, he will be trying to banish the demons of 2018, when he was robbed of possession in the opposing half as Germany chased a late goal against South Korea, allowing Son Heung-min to score as Joachim Löw’s side crashed out at the group stage.

Luis Suárez, Uruguay

Back in July, Suárez returned to former club Nacional, who he left in 2006 to embark on what turned out to be a wholly successful spell in Europe. In his 14 league games, Suárez scored eight times as he played a key role in securing Nacional their 49th Uruguayan Primera División title. The 35-year-old is leaving the club after the World Cup and will do so a hero. His country is now looking to him, his experienced partner Edinson Cavani and the 23-year-old Darwin Núñe, as the men to help Uruguay live up to their billing as dark horses. He is already his country’s all-time top scorer with 66 goals in 133 games; he will hope to add a few more in Qatar.

Luis Suárez won the league title in Uruguay with Nacional.
Luis Suárez won the league title in Uruguay with Nacional. Photograph: Pablo Porciuncula/AFP/Getty Images

Jan Vertonghen, Belgium

Belgium’s golden generation is drawing to a close with Vertonghen, at 35, the oldest member of their squad, pipping Dries Mertens by a few days. Now back in Belgium with Anderlecht after mutually terminating his Benfica contract, Vertonghen has not been playing as regularly as he may have wanted, featuring just six times in the league this season. Yet he is Roberto Martínez’s vice-captain for Belgium behind the perennially injured Eden Hazard, so expect the former Tottenham defender to start in Martínez’s favoured three-man backline in Qatar.

Robert Lewandowski, Poland

Will Poland go far at the World Cup? With Lewandowski leading the charge, anything is possible. He scored goals for fun in the Bundesliga while at Bayern Munich and has continued in the same vein at Barcelona, scoring 18 goals in 19 games this season. Poland have not made it past the group stage of the World Cup since Mexico 1986, two years before Lewandowski was born. The 34-year-old will be aiming to repeat that performance in what is likely to be his last World Cup.

Luka Modric, Croatia

There seems to be no stopping Modric. At 37, the Real Madrid midfielder is still dominating games for his club, and he will be aiming to do the same for Croatia this month. Modric won the Golden Ball in 2018 for his role in helping his country reach the final, where they were beaten 4-2 by France. He will be winning his 155th cap when he captains Croatia in their opening game against Morocco next week. If he can continue to prove that age is but a number, who knows how far Croatia will go in Qatar, particularly with the metronomic Modric pulling the strings in the middle of the park.

Barcelona knew Robert Lewandowski was good. But not this good | La Liga

Turns out the guy who had scored 618 career goals, and run at more than 25 a year every year for more than a decade, was quite good. There were plenty of players missing when La Liga returned from the international break this weekend, but not him. He, it seems, is inevitable. And so when they had finished, there he was, quietly standing above them all. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish Ian Rush and the Spanish Pichichi. And, who knows, perhaps something more: he, after all, has just taken his team to a place they hadn’t been in two and a half years.

This was the weekend the Williams brothers kept rolling, Nico and Inaki returning home from debuts with different countries to set each other up as Athletic scored four for the third time to go top of the everyone else league. The weekend in which Girona and Real Sociedad went wild, scoring eight between them, including one that was ridiculous from Rodrigo Riquelme and something a bit special from Alex Sorloth in a 5-3 away win. The weekend when so, unexpectedly, did Getafe and Valladolid: not normally Spain’s great entertainers, they served up the best show the Coliseum’s seen since 325AD.

This weekend had what was briefly the season’s silliest mistake from Espanyol goalkeeper Álvaro Fernández – until he went one worse three minutes later, letting in a 96th-minute equaliser against Valencia. It didn’t have much Iago Apas, sitting on the bench with a dodgy tummy, but it did have Gabri Veiga hitting an outrageous 30-yard winner for Celta against Betis, beaten on the road for the second time running and only the third all year. In all likelihood, it had Julen Lopetegui’s last stand, Sevilla a single point and a single place from the relegation spots, and the manager a single call from the sack after a 2-0 defeat by Atlético Madrid. And it had Osasuna at the Bernabéu, where Sergio Herrera’s strange grip over Karim Benzema tightened.

In a game nowhere near as good as any of those, it also had a goal from Robert Lewandowski, which isn’t really news any more but which is the point. You have to go back to the opening day of the season for the last time he didn’t score. “A killer,” Mallorca coach Javi Aguirre had called him in the hours before they met, and he knew. “There’s no dignity in defeat: they all hurt,” he said 24 hours later. It was late on Saturday at Son Moix, and his team had taken more shots than Barcelona, but had been beaten. Because if they had 13, Lewandowski had one – and that was enough.

Cutting inside, he bent a finish as perfectly placed as it was unfussy, excellence made to look easy. And that was pretty much that, the only goal. If he had led them in and benefited from a the team having a good night before – Barcelona had scored four, four, three, four, three in their previous five league games and put five past Viktoria Plzen – now he had seen them through a bad one. “Lewandowski, the Zahori,” AS called him. A water diviner, basically. Some sort of mystic, he had found an oasis in the desert, Santi Giménez wrote, “and when you’re dying of thirst and find water, you’ll believe in anything”. Even in Barcelona. This, one headline had it, was “Lewy’s Law”. No wonder Sport and Mundo Deportivo thought they could go one better than Thomas Müller.

They were wrong. So very, very wrong.

You may remember the delighted look on the Bayern midfielder’s face, all pleased with himself when he told the press: “We call him Lewangoalski … geddit, LewanGOALski” – a line full of fondness and so bad it was good. This Sunday, Sport splashed their front cover with Goalandowski, while Mundo Deportivo went for Lethaldowski – a pair of lines so bad they were just bad. And yet if they lacked the charm, warmth, or imagination of the original – and did they ever – it was understandable. This was Lewandowski’s ninth in seven league games – he is three ahead of Borja Iglesias, having not taken any penalties to Iglesias’s three – and his 12th in nine games over all. Only László Kubala, Alfredo Di Stefano and Christian Vieri had scored as many seven games into spells in Spain. He has scored in six league matches running. He is, Xavi says, a “guarantee of goals”.

But then you knew that, and so did Xavi. There is a reason Barcelona kept pushing even when Bayern pushed back, why they saw through their commitment to him even when the price went to twice, three times what they had excepted to pay. Just look at his club totals over the last seven seasons: 42, 43, 41, 40, 55, 48, 50, for goodness’ sake. Whatever the reason – they said it was all down to eating pudding before his main course, always putting sweets first, but that’s rubbish, this column has been trying for years – he has always scored goals. This is nothing new: it’s nine years since he put four past Real Madrid, almost as long since Madrid made the first of many attempts to sign him, and that Polish Ian Rush thing goes back to Lech Poznan. His success doesn’t surprise.

Except it sort of does. “He goes into the area, a pool of crocodiles, like it was his own home,” Jorge Valdano writes. “Calling him a goalscorer is reductionist like all he knows how to do is the hardest thing of all. And anyway before a goalscorer, he is a player. Someone you can give the ball to and he never lets you down.” That’s part of it: you never know if it will work out for any footballer, and even if the productivity might not have surprised some of the play has: the intelligence, the touch, the movement, the subtlety, the vision and variety. The timing, which is not just about being there at the finish. After he produced a gorgeous back-heeled assist to Pedri, Eric García insisted, impressed: “I can’t see that pass from the bench and he can see it on the pitch.” Xavi says “he understands the game”, knows what to do and when.

Robert Lewandowski (centre) celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win at Mallorca.
Robert Lewandowski (centre) celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win at Mallorca. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Then there’s the personality, a natural ascendency over others carried lightly, not eroded over the years. “He feels comfortable, he adapts, he’s aware of his responsibility coming here,” Xavi says. “He has maturity, he talk to the young players, he’s humble and hard working. He’s calm, he has confidence in himself, and he’s a natural leader for the team.”

You can know a footballer is good but not how good; you can see him somewhere else, but it’s not the same as when he turns up at your team, your league. There’s always a discovery, even of the known. There are also always doubts, the hint of risk, and when a player arrives into an environment where there are enough doubts already, then all the more so. Lewandowski came at 34 on a four-year deal, Bayern refusing to offer more than one. And he admitted having seen firsthand some of the issues Barcelona had last season when he was on the other side; he also, though, insisted that he focused on where they were going, not where they had come from, a calm authority about him. If a good player can always be brought down, a really good one can bring those around him up.

Which is why what happened in Mallorca impressed less than other nights but mattered more, symbolising something significant.

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La Liga results


Real Mallorca 0-1 Barcelona, Sevilla 0-2 Atlético Madrid, Getafe 2-3 Real Valladolid, Cádiz 0-0 Villarreal, Real Madrid 1-1 Osasuna, Girona 3-5 Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo 1-0 Real Betis, Espanyol 2-2 Valencia

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On Sunday, a wild weekend ended with Osasuna, this season’s revelation so far, holding Madrid to a 1-1 draw. Kike García headed in a goal that Antonio Rüdiger called “one in a million” and then Benzema hit the bar with a penalty 10 minutes from time – the fourth he has missed in six, three of them against Herrera. It was the first time Madrid had failed to win all season, but enough to allow Lewandowski’s goal to take his team top.

It is very early still, the clásico is coming soon, injuries and the fixture list suggests they will be vulnerable this month, and Barcelona haven’t beaten the most illustrious of opponents: Mallorca, Elche, Cádiz, Valladolid and Sevilla are all bottom half. Their run of six wins and a draw hasn’t been all about Lewandowski either – Marc André ter Stegen extended his run without conceding a goal to a personal best 534 minutes and that’s 18 away games without defeat under Xavi, stretching back to last season. But this is the first time they have been top since June 2020 – when Quique Setién was in charge and stadiums were still empty, 91 matches ago. Valencia, Granada, Betis, Madrid, Getafe, Real Sociedad and Atlético have all been there since but Barcelona haven’t. Lewandowski has, and now he’s back again in a position to compete for his ninth league title in a row, his 11th in 13 years.

“Lewandowski is a blessing,” Xavi says.