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Kacper Kozlowski: The 'Polish Pogba' already on Man Utd's radar

7:00 PM SGT 14/5/21
Kacper Kozlowski NXGN GFX
The 17-year-old has already made his full international debut and could feature at Euro 2020 after recovering from a serious car crash last year

Polish football is on the lookout for a new on-field leader.

While Robert Lewandowski continues to carry the flag for the country's national team, the Bayern Munich star will turn 33 before the summer is out.

Though he is arguably in the best form of his career as he closes in on Gerd Muller's all-time record for the most goals in a single Bundesliga season, which stands at 40 (Lewandowski has 39 in 2020-21), there is an acceptance that he cannot go on forever.

As such, the emergence of Kacper Kozlowski over the past couple of seasons has offered hope to Polish fans that they will soon have another global superstar to call their own.

Things could, however, have been very different.

In January 2020, Kozlowski and two of his Pogon Szczecin team-mates were involved in a car crash while on their way to training.

Kozlowski was the most badly hurt of the three, suffering a broken pelvis and three broken vertebrae in his lower back. As a result of the spinal damage, he was fitted with a special corset to wear while he recovered.

And though the injuries were never thought to be career-threatening, that Kozlowski has been able to overcome that adversity is testament to his resolve.

"I couldn't train for almost half a year," Kozlowski tells Goal in an exclusive interview, "which is the worst thing that can happen as a young player.

"But after I got back to individual training, I felt like things were back on track and going in the right direction.

"It was a difficult time in my life, but I focus on the here and now and not on the past. It is a fact that I missed a few matches, but frankly, I have been working even harder since then.

"Mentally, it might help me in the future to have gone through this."

Kozlowski certainly seems to be making up for lost time, with the 17-year-old having locked down a starting role in the Pogon midfield as the 2020-21 campaign has worn on.

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He was also a surprise selection for Paulo Sousa's first Poland senior squad in March, and having made his debut against Andorra in World Cup qualifying, the door is now open for Kozlowski to be one of the youngest players at this summer's European Championship.

That is all a long way from his humble beginnings, with the teenager having not had any formal coaching until the age of 10, instead choosing only to play with his friends at home or on the street.

He eventually joined local side Baltyk Koszalin, who immediately realised they had a special talent on their hands.

It is claimed that some of their training sessions would consist of Kozlowski and one outfield team-mate being pitted against a team of six in a bid to ensure an equal game, so far ahead of his peers was the precocious youngster.

After three years, he was spotted by Pogon, who in turn fought off competition from Lech Poznan to land Kozlowski.

"When he entered the academy, he was very confident," recalled Pogon youth coach Patryk Dabrowski to Sport.pl. "He is very confident, but not wayward or arrogant. He balances on this fine line, but does not exceed it.

"It helps him on the pitch, because, for example, he is not afraid to dribble or play unconventionally. It's not uncommon for young footballers to have skills, but they don't get the most out of them during matches. Their head limits them, which is why they intuitively opt for simpler solutions.

"Kacper does not have that – his head is in tune with his legs. He just knows that he is good."

Kozlowski quickly began motoring through the various age-group sides at Pogon, and having scored nine goals and laid on four assists in 15 games for the Under-19s during the 2018-19 campaign, he found himself training with the first team at the age of 15.

Having suitably impressed manager Kosta Runjaic, he made his debut as a late substitute in Pogon's final game of the Ekstraklasa season against Cracovia Krakow. At 15 years and 215 days, he ranked as the third-youngest player in the league's history.

Four months later, in September 2019, Kozlowski was impressing scouts from around Europe as he helped lead Poland U17s to the final of Syrenka Cup on home soil.

There they would face an England team captained by Jude Bellingham, as Kozlowski joined Harvey Elliott and Jamal Musiala in getting himself on the scoresheet in a 2-2 draw, before the Three Lions eventually triumphed on penalties.

One of the teams with officials in attendance were Manchester United, who along with clubs from France, Italy and Germany began closely tracking Kozlowski's development.

That development, of course, ground to a halt following his accident at the start of 2020, but after returning to action in pre-season, he has gone from strength to strength in 2021.

"Such a boy is only born every few years," said Dabrowski. "So far, I have not dealt with a more talented footballer.

"And you see, I'm not afraid that these words will hurt him, because he is dealing with this noise, with these expectations or pressure. It actually motivates him to work even harder."

That is certainly the case for Kozlowski, who is keen to improve on all attributes of his game, having returned one goal and three assists from 19 league games this season.

"Ever since I was a young boy, my idol has been Cristiano Ronaldo. However, over time, I started to like and watch Paul Pogba more," he says.

"I think I can give more to the team as an offensive midfielder, but I can also work as a defensive midfielder.

"I work on both sides of my game, offensively and defensively, but I feel better in an advanced role. I am a player who likes to compete and fight for everything, take risks and likes to go one-on-one or even one-versus-two.

"I would like to improve my shots from long range and maybe also my decision-making."

If Kozlowski can make the necessary improvements to his game, then a move to one of Europe's top leagues may not be too far away.

"Kacper is an exceptional talent," said Runjaic in a recent interview with Super Express. "If everything goes well from his point of view, we will see him playing in one of the leading leagues in Europe. He is already ready to do so."

Juventus and Bayer Leverkusen have previously been linked with Kozlowski, whose contract is up in 2022, while recent reports suggest scouts from Red Bull Salzburg, Torino and Saint-Etienne have been to watch him in action.

Despite all the talk of transfers and call-ups for major international tournaments, Kozlowski is keeping a level head.

"Now I am playing senior football; it doesn't feel too different from my youth career. I treat every match the same," he says.

"It is still an amazing feeling to be playing with such great players and at this level, I have learned that I need to make decisions faster on the pitch.

"For now, I would like to give something back to Pogon. Then I would like to play abroad soon and get more chances for the Polish national team."

Those chances will, sooner or later, be almost assured.

He might not play like Lewandowski, but soon enough expect Kozlowski to follow in his footsteps in carrying the hopes of Polish football on his shoulders.