Poland has found a stand-in for stymied star Robert Lewandowski.
Little-known outside Poland and Italy, Jakub Blaszczykowski has so far scored the goals expected from the Bayern Munich striker, becoming the surprise leader of Poland’s run to a first ever quarterfinal appearance at the European Championship.
The 30-year-old attacking midfielder leads Poland with two goals in four games at the tournament, and the two strikes have been all his team has managed_ as well as needed_ to win its last two matches and reach the final eight in France.
Blaszczykowski helped Poland beat Switzerland after a 5-4 penalty shootout on Saturday night in Saint-Etienne, scoring its first-half opener before the Swiss forced extra time with an equalizer.
Blaszczykowski sent a low shot between the legs of Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer after Kamil Grosicki drew in the defense in the 39th minute.
With the score then level at 1-1 after 120 minutes, he also confidently converted one of five made spot kicks for Poland.
“I am too old to get emotional (during penalties),” Blaszczykowski said. “Now, I try to stay as cool as possible. In general we are very happy we have achieved something we had not done before. This is a marvelous feeling.”
The goal against Switzerland followed on from Blaszczykowski curling in a left-footed shot for a 1-0 win over Ukraine as a second-half substitute to qualify for the round-of-16.
“Let’s hope it stays like this all the way through to the final,” he said.
The poised performances by Blaszczykowski in front of the net contrast with Lewandowski’s suddenly shaky aim.
Lewandowski was poised to be one of the biggest players at the 24-team tournament after hitting 13 goals to fuel a Poland attack that managed 33 goals in 10 qualifiers. He also excelled for his club this season, scoring 30 times to help Bayern defend its Bundesliga title.
But all that proficiency in front of goal has dried up at Euro 2016. Lewandowski has yet to score, although he did finally steer his first shots on target against Switzerland.
Without his goals, coach Adam Nawalka has had to shift his focus from attack to defense, and then look for another player to step forward.
So far, it has been Blaszczykowski who has answered the call to keep Poland unbeaten.
Blaszczykowski, who plays for Italy’s Fiorentina, has scored 18 goals in 83 appearances for Poland.
Not staggering scoring numbers overall, but he is the only Pole to score at two different European Championships.
Next up Poland faces Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal in the quarterfinals in Marseille on Thursday.
That might be a good time for Lewandowski to recover his role.
Nawalka, for one, said he is sure Lewandowski will come through.
“I’m confident the break will happen in the next match,” he said. “And let our opponents be afraid from there.”