Polish striker is one shy of 40 goals for the season but his missed chances in the Uefa Champions League semi-final, first leg drew criticism
Real Madrid v Bayern Munich: Spotlight falls on Robert Lewandowski to prove his big-game credentials
There is, the Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes insisted, no dilemma at all. He has a “world-class” centre-forward at his disposal and that man was always a certainty to start Tuesday night's Uefa Champions League semi-final second leg in Madrid.
“To anybody who thinks I might leave him out,” Heynckes said to reporters, “he has scored 39 goals this season. Most strikers in Europe only dream of that.”
Heynckes’ intention was to draw a firm line under a growing debate around Robert Lewandowski ahead of a seismic collision at the Bernabeu, where Bayern need goals, trailing 2-1, and the chief bearer of blame around their failure to convert opportunities in an untidy first leg in Munich has been the Polish striker.
Lewandowski fluffed a pair of chances, and pundits quickly reached for a familiar theory: that, for all his impressive statistics, the striker vanishes in high-pressure contests.
Hear this, for instance, from Oliver Kahn, the former Bayern and Germany captain. “Lewandowski is too quiet in high-stakes games,” Kahn told the broadcaster ZDF. “He doesn’t deserve all the praise he gets. He has status, but doesn’t live up to it in the big matches.”
Lewandowski’s status tends to come into special focus when Bayern visit Madrid. For some years, interest in the player from Real’s senior executives has been keen. And, as he approaches his 30th birthday this summer, the forward and his advisors have indicated that a future at the serial European champions - a Madrid where the current No 9, Karim Benzema, has had a patchy campaign - would be appealing for the Poland captain.
Tuesday night is not an audition, but it is an examination of Lewandowski, a target-man supreme, who is one goal shy of reaching 40 across competitions for the third season running. He has scored hat-tricks in each of his last two Bundesliga starts but is without a Champions League goal in his last four outings.
Heynckes revealed he had met with Lewandowski privately last week and the manager reports no concerns about his morale. “He has been training very well,” Heynckes said.
It is five years since Lewandowski made headlines with a stunning exhibition of penalty-box prowess against Madrid. He scored four goals in a single Champions League semi-final, outwrestling the powerful Pepe, outfoxing Rafa Varane and Sergio Ramos with his movement and deft turns, and ushering his then club Borussia Dortmund into a final against Bayern.
By the following summer Lewandowski was on the move to Munich, chasing the chance of more regular silverware. He has just won his sixth Bundesliga – four with Bayern, two with Dortmund – but no European Cup, as yet.
Franz Beckenbauer, like Kahn part of the large chorus of former Bayern captains who cast stern verdicts from a media podium, wonders if “our players have a sort of complex when they play Real Madrid.”
Lewandowski was among those who left the Bernabeu last season a defeated quarter-finalist. He did register a goal to stir hope, bringing the aggregate score in a see-saw tie back to 2-2 after, just like last week, Madrid had taken a 2-1 lead out of Munich.
But in a contest where Bayern suffered some cruel refereeing decisions, he was comfortably eclipsed by Cristiano Ronaldo as Madrid went on to win 4-2 after extra-time.
Does he really disappear in the big games? Lewandowski’s record in Champions League semi-finals may well be frustrating overall, but he tends to get on the scoresheet.
He headed in Bayern’s late, lifeline goal in the narrow defeat – in away goals – against Atletico Madrid in the 2016 semi-final. A year earlier, pursuing an unlikely recovery from a 3-0 first leg deficit against Barcelona, Lewandowski scored in the 3-2 home win in the last-four stage.
There's the story of Lewandowski’s Bayern years in Europe: two semi-finals and a quarter, eliminated every time by a Spanish opponent. No wonder he nurses the idea that Madrid would be a more rewarding stage for him to play out the rest of his peak years.
He knows he will be under special scrutiny on Tuesday. Bayern’s director of football, Hasa Salihamidzic , who knows as accurately as anybody about how high up on Madrid’s transfer wish-list Lewandowski features, called the recent criticism of the player “an insult.”
Heynckes meanwhile ponders a strategy to maximise his effectiveness in Madrid. Arjen Robben, injured, will not be providing service from the right flank, but Franck Ribery should do so from the left, and Heynckes hopes that the likes of Thomas Muller and perhaps James Rodriguez can engineer openings and space for the under-pressure Pole. And that Ronaldo, for once, is not the most destructive finisher on show.