Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 February 2020

Bayern Munich goal machine Robert Lewandowski has German great Gerd Muller's 40-goal mark in his sights

Polish striker just cannot stop scoring as he targets Bundesliga record and a place on next year's Ballon D’Or podium

As Lionel Messi makes space on his mantelpiece for a sixth Ballon d’Or, it is legitimate to wonder if anybody, in any era, will ever catch up. He has moved ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has five and a 35th birthday two months away.

But there’s one race in which Messi already faces implausibly hard competition for No 1 status this season: to finish as the leading scorer across elite club football.

Messi has six Golden Shoes – the trophy that rewards the most effective goalscorer in European domestic leagues – and a decade’s worth of interchanging that prize with Ronaldo.

Both usually get there via a surreal set of statistics. Or with numbers like those currently being generated by Robert Lewandowski, who is commanding the Bundesliga and Champions League.

That the Pole did not register a goal last weekend provoked a collective gasp around Bavaria. It was only the second time in 19 starts across league, Cup and European fixtures he has gone without. He comes into December with a startling 27.

There were four against Red Star Belgrade last week, eye-catching for their rapid succession – 14 minutes between first and fourth – and for the sampler the quick-fire quartet provided of Lewandowski’s broad range of talents.

One from a dead-ball, an area of high expertise; one poacher’s strike, executed with a resourceful, elastic stretch of his long right leg; one header from a cross, met with a typical number nine’s authority; one cold-blooded finish, facing an advancing goalkeeper after a nimble dribble past two defenders. Thus the complete centre-forward in a bite-sized, quarter-hour highlights package.

More competitive opponents than Red Star are collapsing before this all-purpose predator, and the intriguing aspect of his current form is that it coincides with a period of Bayern dysfunction.

His club, where Lewandowski has won the Bundesliga title in each of the last five years, are fourth in the table and on their second head coach of the season.

They are also in transition, after over a decade in which their attacking football was greatly defined by the long-serving wingers, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, both now departed.

To have that pair as suppliers is a boon for any target man. What Lewandowski has developed is a game far beyond the confines of simple target-man. He can be that – 1.84m tall, with a great spring, strong neck muscles and a finessed timing of his runs to near and far post – but, along with the helpful physical dimensions is an unusual daintiness, a lightness on his feet.

There is a genetic explanation. His father, Krzystof, was a distinguished judo champion; his mother, Iwona, played volleyball to a high level.

For a glimpse of the leaping, inner martial-artist in their son, look only at Robert’s remarkable moment of ball-control during Bayern’s 4-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski’s former club, last month, when he soared off the ground and plucked a high ball from the sky on his toe-cap, connecting at more than two metres off the ground, and letting the ball roll gently down his leg as if on a slide.

He has been privileged with his mentors, from Jurgen Klopp, whose Dortmund were propelled to two German titles by Lewandowski’s goals in 2011 and 2012, to Pep Guardiola – “Pep makes every player improve,” Lewandowski told Bild – to Carlo Ancelotti, under whom he scored at close to a goal per game. And, although Lewandowski is no loudmouth off the field, there is, colleagues say, a fierce ambition and a keen awareness of his relative status among the greats of his generation.

An immediate aim is to eclipse a great from a previous era, Gerd Muller, whose 40 goals in a 34-match Bundesliga season is unmatched in 47 years. “I thought that record would be eternal,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern CEO and former colleague of Muller’s. “Robert is the first man who could equal it.”

If he maintains his current rate, Lewandowski will pass 40 league goals. If he keeps his Champions League form, and follows up with a strong European championship for Poland, then the Ballon D’Or judges will be obliged to put his name closer to the podium.

Updated: December 4, 2019 08:48 AM

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