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WC Qualification Europe

'Lewandowski can hurt you' - Southgate wary of Poland superstar after England's World Cup qualifying draw

21:44 GMT 07/12/2020
Robert Lewandowski Poland
The Three Lions boss named the Bayern Munich centre forward as a player his team will be looking to keep quiet

England manager Gareth Southgate has picked Poland superstar Robert Lewandowski as the biggest threat to his nation after the announcement of UEFA's World Cup qualifying groups for Qatar 2022.

The Three Lions were drawn into a group of six alongside Poland, Hungary, Albania, Andorra and San Marino, with the winner qualifying directly for next year's tournament.

With Poland and Hungary likely to be England's biggest threat to reaching the World Cup finals on a seventh consecutive occasion, Southgate singled out Lewandowski, who was arguably the Ballon d'Or favourite for this year before the award was cancelled due to Covid-19.

The Bayern Munich striker scored an extraordinary 55 goals last season as he led the Bavarians to the Champions League title and their eighth consecutive Bundesliga title.

"He's a fantastic player and he's as good of a number nine as there is," Southgate said.

"When you look at him, Harry Kane and [Romelu] Lukaku they are the number nines you think of as the best from around Europe.

"He is a player who can hurt you and his record for his country is phenomenally good. That's the challenge we will face at some point but let's see what the fixtures throw up tomorrow."

Despite England being hot favourites to win the group, Southgate was wary of the fixtures against Poland and Hungary, with the latter recently having success in the Nations League.

The Three Lions coach believes opposition players are keen to put themselves in the shop window for the Premier League and matches against England are a good opportunity to do that.

"Everyone has a mix of teams, Poland are a very good side, Hungary just got promoted into the Nations League top division so those two in particular will be tough games," Southgate said.

"The rest will be games that when I have played or managed with England are complicated games to navigate. Ultimately, it will be about what we do.

"Poland at Wembley and Poland in Poland is a game with great history. There was a period where we seemed to draw them every time so it is historic like the Hungary one as well.

"There's always an incentive for these nations to play well, put themselves on the map and try to put themselves in the sights of Premier League clubs so there's always a lot of incentives for the opposition."

Despite lavishing praise on Poland's talisman Lewandowski, Southgate was quick to single out England captain Harry Kane for compliments.

The manager believes Kane has grown as a leader in recent months and his leadership is starting to have a positive effect on the team performance.

"Not only are [Kane's] performances for us strong but his leadership is growing all the time," he said.

"He is growing with that responsibility and he is recognising the moment where his voice and attitude and mentality to training with interactions with other players is having a huge effect.

"So he really is growing as a captain and leader. It is not an easy thing to do. Captaincy is learned and leadership is learned. He has a lot of natural parts of that which he does without even realising.

"I thought in the last few months in particular he stepped up in other areas. We finished with a strong performance and a lot of young players on the field [with a win over Iceland]. They look to him as an inspiring player to play for and with."

The World Cup qualifying fixtures will begin in March 2021, with the group stage to be finished by November and the playoffs to conclude the qualification process in March 2022.

While the group winner will automatically qualify for Qatar 2022, the 10 group runners-up will go into the playoffs in March 2022, where they will be joined by the two best group winners of the 2020/21 Nations League that have neither qualified directly for the final tournament as group winners, nor entered the play-offs already as runners-up.

The 12 teams will then be drawn into three play-off paths for one-off semi-finals and a final, with the three path winners qualifying for the World Cup.