There are some magnificent forwards in world football at the moment. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a magician whose class is timeless, while Luis Suarez had the individual ability to carry Liverpool to within two points of the Premier League title in 2013-14. And then there are the hybrid attacking machines, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who really need no introduction.
A name that is understated among the world’s best strikers is that of Robert Lewandowski. However, having surpassed a century of Bundesliga goals on Saturday, the Bayern Munich man has proved he deserves more consideration. This is especially highlighted by his red-hot form.
Lewandowski’s brace against Mainz on Saturday raised his tally to seven goals in the last four days and 12 for club and country since the 2015-16 European club football season began.
It’s a bit of a wonder why Lewandowski hasn’t always been put in the same basket as stars such as Suarez and Sergio Aguero. Perhaps it’s because he’s more of a traditional forward in a time when “false” strikers and hybrid players capable of doing it all on their own have come into fashion.
Aguero and Suarez are the types who can dribble half the length of the pitch before finishing; Ibrahimovic is a technician who scores all kinds of goals, from overhead volleys and long-ranged drives to more ordinary strikes.
Lewandowski, on the other hand, usually shoots from within the penalty box and is more a man of efficiency than flash. Rather than a teenage superstar at a big club, he had relatively humble beginnings, developing at Znicz Pruszkow and Lech Poznan before transferring to Borussia Dortmund as a 22-year-old. Still at a less glamorous club, it took him over a year to settle and become a star, and he didn’t join one of Europe's traditional elite powers until he signed for Bayern just before his 26th birthday.
Another factor that has contributed to his underappreciation is the fact Lewandowski isn’t exactly a darling of the international press. Unlike egotistical types such as Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo, he’s more a humble character who has no problem letting Thomas Muller take Bayern’s penalties and who leads a rather quiet life off the pitch.
And yet Lewandowski has consistently delivered, particularly when it’s mattered most. His four-goal haul against Real Madrid in the 2012-13 Champions League semifinal is a feat that may never be equalled on such a grand stage. And his five goals against Wolfsburg on Tuesday set a slew of Bundesliga records, from most goals scored by a substitute to fastest hat-trick and four- and five-goal tallies ever recorded.
It took him just nine minutes to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 5-1 advantage for the Bavarians, against Champions League-caliber opposition.
The Wolfsburg match brought Lewandowski into the international spotlight, but in fairness, the striker deserved more attention sooner. It was he who equalized when it looked like Augsburg might take three points in Munich, and it was he who netted a last-gasp winner in Hoffenheim as 10-man Bayern rallied from a goal behind to pip the village club to victory.
Saturday was no different, as Lewandowski, marked into anonymity in the first half as Bayern were largely stymied in attack, scored with his first look at goal.
Averaging just under 30 goals per club season in the four years heading into the current campaign, Lewandowski has been a regular and consistent performer. And all this has come almost in spite of Pep Guardiola otherwise turning Bayern into a team of midfielders, occasionally benching the Pole in favor of a false nine and using one or even a complete lack of natural center-backs.
All the while, Lewandowski has emerged as a leader and a key figure for his national team, Poland. Whereas Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic haven't always led their respective countries to the best success, Lewandowski has lately emerged as a national hero, captaining a good but not great Poland side to the runners-up spot in Euro 2016 Qualifying Group D.
Poland were group leaders until their recent fixture against Germany, in which Lewandowski was on target in a 3-1 defeat. In any case, it's proved to be a great achievement for the White Eagles, as they've held their own against the World Cup winners and are poised to qualify for the upcoming tournament in France. They owe much of their success to Lewandowski, who leads all scorers in qualifying with 10 goals and whose tally of four assists is just one off the leader.
Right now, the Bayern man's influence at international level is superlative among top strikers around the world.
A year younger than Aguero and seven years younger than Ibrahimovic, Lewandowski still has several years left of football in his prime. He spent half of his senior career in relatively modest circumstances, but as he's emerged as a national icon in Poland and the game-changer Bayern rely upon when the going gets tough, he's more and more becoming a figure who can only be regarded as the world's best classic center forward.