Tactical Insights

Barcelona veteran forward Robert Lewandowski and Poland stand in the way of Wales reaching the Euro 2024 finals

  • Wales face Poland in the play-off final for a place at this summer’s Euros
  • Robert Lewandowski remains Poland’s biggest threat to Wales qualifying
  • Why it’s a FARCE that relegated Wales could get a back-door route into Euro 2024 – Listen to the It’s All Kicking Off podcast 

They’ve been rolling out the Welsh royalty in Cardiff, as has become the custom on these big occasions.

Rhys Ifans, the actor, has taken over from Michael Sheen, motivator-in-chief before the World Cup, in providing some motivation for a Wales team looking to book a third successive tournament place for the nation in Tuesday’s play-off final.

But no gloss can obscure the fundamental challenge. While Wales journey on without their own once-in-a-generation genius, Poland are very much holding onto theirs. Robert Lewandowski has scored 82 goals for Poland – a record surpassed only by Romelu Lukaku, Ferenc Puskas and Cristiano Ronaldo – and is eyeing a last tournament.

With some chutzpah, manager Rob Page declared of Lewandowski: ‘He’s a fantastic player. We respect that. But it stops there. We have planned for him.’ You can never entirely plan for a player like him.

Lewandowski is 35 now, and though he didn’t register for the Poles in their 5-1 evisceration of Estonia in their play-off semi-final last week, he’s still very much the threat. Another 23 goals this season for the Barcelona player, including three for his country.

Wales face Poland in the play-off final in Cardiff for a place at this summer’s Euros
Robert Lewandowski remains Poland’s biggest threat to Wales qualifying for the tournament

Wales have much to take belief from. Their home record, reading two defeats in 23 (though Poland were one of the two.) The colossal power of the national anthem in the latter stages of their 4-1 victory over Finland on Thursday.

But the match-up between Lewandowski and Chris Mepham, at the heart of central defence, is where the greatest jeopardy resides. When Teemu Pukki lurked with goalscoring intent for the Finns last Thursday night, Mepham’s radar failed him.

Compensation comes in the pleasing balance Page’s side revealed that night, with Nathan Ampadu and Jordan James bringing a strength to defensive midfield which gave the defenders confidence, as the wing backs Neco Williams and Connor Roberts were set free.

It will be a question of collective defending to deter Lewandowski, forward Harry Wilson observed. ‘He might not be getting younger, but if we give him half a sniff at goal, he’s going to take it,’ the Fulham striker said. ‘We need to make sure we stop him and don’t give him space or chances. If we do that, we’re confident with the quality in our dressing room going the other way that we can really hurt them.’

The Poles have several other elite players – including Arsenal defender Jakub Kiwior and Napoli midfielder Piotr Zielinski – though they could be without Aston Villa right-back Matty Cash, who went off injured against Estonia.

Wales boss Rob Page declared he has a plan to stop Lewandowski scoring on the night

They, just like Wales, have arrived here on the back of months of uncertainty, after qualification campaigns which, as Page put in on Monday, brought ‘bumps in the road.’

For Wales there were the back-to-back defeats against Armenia and Turkey last summer and the defeat to Armenia in Cardiff, which felt humiliating at the time and posed questions about Page’s future. 

There was a memorable win over Croatia last October but a draw out in Armenia deprived them of automatic qualification.

Poland’s defeat in Moldova was a national humiliation and a subsequent loss to Albania saw manager Fernando Santos’ shown the door. Theirs has been an even more pronounced limp to this moment.

Lewandowski has scored 82 goals for Poland – and is eyeing a last tournament in Germany

It can’t be said that history is on Wales side. The nation’s last win over Poland was way back in March 1973, when fewer than 13,000 fans watched a 2-0 win at the old Ninian Park, with Leighton James and the late Trevor Hockey scoring. 

The game fell within the same three-nation World Cup qualification group which saw England fail to beat the Poles and miss out on the finals. Wales have lost seven and drawn two of the nine subsequent meetings.

Page has, as you would expect, already had Wales FA staff surveying possible Euros bases and it would be some achievement to reach a third consecutive final in the post-Gareth Bale era. They would face France, Austria and Netherlands in Group D.

The manager, deliberating over whether to start with Brooks or Kieffer Moore, was full of his usual boundless positivity. ‘It’s about us playing to the best we can play,’ he said. ‘If we match the levels we can, certainly at home, the result takes care of itself.’

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