MOSCOW (Reuters) - Poland forward Robert Lewandowski will be faced with a defender ominously known as K2 when, at the age of 29, he finally makes his debut at the World Cup finals in Tuesday’s Group H match against Senegal.
Poland rely on Lewandowski for goals but he will first have to find a way past Kalidou Koulibaly, who in four seasons at Napoli has become one of European club football’s most accomplished defenders, in an intriguing personal duel.
Little known before he was signed by Napoli in 2014, Koulibaly has been a rock at the heart of the Napoli defense and has played a key role in helping to transform them into one of Serie A’s top sides.
A mountain of a man as his nickname suggests, Koulibaly combines his physical presence with intelligence and an excellent technique which belies his somewhat ungainly appearance, and very little gets past him.
His reading of the game has improved immeasurably at Napoli and he always seems to pop up in the right place at the right time to prevent his opponents from getting into scoring positions.
His performances for Napoli at one point attracted the attention of France coach Didier Deschamps, unaware that Koulibaly, who was born in France to Senegalese parents, had already chosen to play for the Lions of Teranga.
Lewandowski led Poland to the finals with a remarkable 16 goals in 10 matches in the qualifying campaign, including three hat-tricks, and is their record scorer with 55 goals in 95 appearances.
He also has a remarkable scoring record for his club side Bayern Munich, with 106 Bundesliga goals in four seasons.
Yet despite his excellent record for both club and country, doubts have surfaced about his ability to cope with the big occasion.
He mustered only one goal at Euro 2012, where co-hosts Poland went out in the group stage, and another at Euro 2016, where they gave a much-improved performance before going out in the quarter-finals. This time, he insists he is raring to go.
“I played less games this season, which means I’m less tired. I hope this freshness will show,” he said. “This time the preparations have been personalized, catered to what an individual player needs.”
Even so, he said he did not want to be judged on how many goals he scores.
“I am not sure how many good opportunities I will have. But when I am doubled up on and fouled, it frees up space for my team mates and we’d like to take advantage of this.
“I want my hunger for goals to be even bigger and bigger. And of course I hope more goals will come on the biggest stage - the World Cup.”
Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar