Turns out the guy who had scored 618 career goals, and run at more than 25 a year every year for more than a decade, was quite good. There were plenty of players missing when La Liga returned from the international break this weekend, but not him. He, it seems, is inevitable. And so when they had finished, there he was, quietly standing above them all. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish Ian Rush and the Spanish Pichichi. And, who knows, perhaps something more: he, after all, has just taken his team to a place they hadn’t been in two and a half years.
This was the weekend the Williams brothers kept rolling, Nico and Inaki returning home from debuts with different countries to set each other up as Athletic scored four for the third time to go top of the everyone else league. The weekend in which Girona and Real Sociedad went wild, scoring eight between them, including one that was ridiculous from Rodrigo Riquelme and something a bit special from Alex Sorloth in a 5-3 away win. The weekend when so, unexpectedly, did Getafe and Valladolid: not normally Spain’s great entertainers, they served up the best show the Coliseum’s seen since 325AD.
This weekend had what was briefly the season’s silliest mistake from Espanyol goalkeeper Álvaro Fernández – until he went one worse three minutes later, letting in a 96th-minute equaliser against Valencia. It didn’t have much Iago Apas, sitting on the bench with a dodgy tummy, but it did have Gabri Veiga hitting an outrageous 30-yard winner for Celta against Betis, beaten on the road for the second time running and only the third all year. In all likelihood, it had Julen Lopetegui’s last stand, Sevilla a single point and a single place from the relegation spots, and the manager a single call from the sack after a 2-0 defeat by Atlético Madrid. And it had Osasuna at the Bernabéu, where Sergio Herrera’s strange grip over Karim Benzema tightened.
In a game nowhere near as good as any of those, it also had a goal from Robert Lewandowski, which isn’t really news any more but which is the point. You have to go back to the opening day of the season for the last time he didn’t score. “A killer,” Mallorca coach Javi Aguirre had called him in the hours before they met, and he knew. “There’s no dignity in defeat: they all hurt,” he said 24 hours later. It was late on Saturday at Son Moix, and his team had taken more shots than Barcelona, but had been beaten. Because if they had 13, Lewandowski had one – and that was enough.
Cutting inside, he bent a finish as perfectly placed as it was unfussy, excellence made to look easy. And that was pretty much that, the only goal. If he had led them in and benefited from a the team having a good night before – Barcelona had scored four, four, three, four, three in their previous five league games and put five past Viktoria Plzen – now he had seen them through a bad one. “Lewandowski, the Zahori,” AS called him. A water diviner, basically. Some sort of mystic, he had found an oasis in the desert, Santi Giménez wrote, “and when you’re dying of thirst and find water, you’ll believe in anything”. Even in Barcelona. This, one headline had it, was “Lewy’s Law”. No wonder Sport and Mundo Deportivo thought they could go one better than Thomas Müller.
They were wrong. So very, very wrong.
You may remember the delighted look on the Bayern midfielder’s face, all pleased with himself when he told the press: “We call him Lewangoalski … geddit, LewanGOALski” – a line full of fondness and so bad it was good. This Sunday, Sport splashed their front cover with Goalandowski, while Mundo Deportivo went for Lethaldowski – a pair of lines so bad they were just bad. And yet if they lacked the charm, warmth, or imagination of the original – and did they ever – it was understandable. This was Lewandowski’s ninth in seven league games – he is three ahead of Borja Iglesias, having not taken any penalties to Iglesias’s three – and his 12th in nine games over all. Only László Kubala, Alfredo Di Stefano and Christian Vieri had scored as many seven games into spells in Spain. He has scored in six league matches running. He is, Xavi says, a “guarantee of goals”.
But then you knew that, and so did Xavi. There is a reason Barcelona kept pushing even when Bayern pushed back, why they saw through their commitment to him even when the price went to twice, three times what they had excepted to pay. Just look at his club totals over the last seven seasons: 42, 43, 41, 40, 55, 48, 50, for goodness’ sake. Whatever the reason – they said it was all down to eating pudding before his main course, always putting sweets first, but that’s rubbish, this column has been trying for years – he has always scored goals. This is nothing new: it’s nine years since he put four past Real Madrid, almost as long since Madrid made the first of many attempts to sign him, and that Polish Ian Rush thing goes back to Lech Poznan. His success doesn’t surprise.
Except it sort of does. “He goes into the area, a pool of crocodiles, like it was his own home,” Jorge Valdano writes. “Calling him a goalscorer is reductionist like all he knows how to do is the hardest thing of all. And anyway before a goalscorer, he is a player. Someone you can give the ball to and he never lets you down.” That’s part of it: you never know if it will work out for any footballer, and even if the productivity might not have surprised some of the play has: the intelligence, the touch, the movement, the subtlety, the vision and variety. The timing, which is not just about being there at the finish. After he produced a gorgeous back-heeled assist to Pedri, Eric García insisted, impressed: “I can’t see that pass from the bench and he can see it on the pitch.” Xavi says “he understands the game”, knows what to do and when.
Then there’s the personality, a natural ascendency over others carried lightly, not eroded over the years. “He feels comfortable, he adapts, he’s aware of his responsibility coming here,” Xavi says. “He has maturity, he talk to the young players, he’s humble and hard working. He’s calm, he has confidence in himself, and he’s a natural leader for the team.”
You can know a footballer is good but not how good; you can see him somewhere else, but it’s not the same as when he turns up at your team, your league. There’s always a discovery, even of the known. There are also always doubts, the hint of risk, and when a player arrives into an environment where there are enough doubts already, then all the more so. Lewandowski came at 34 on a four-year deal, Bayern refusing to offer more than one. And he admitted having seen firsthand some of the issues Barcelona had last season when he was on the other side; he also, though, insisted that he focused on where they were going, not where they had come from, a calm authority about him. If a good player can always be brought down, a really good one can bring those around him up.
Which is why what happened in Mallorca impressed less than other nights but mattered more, symbolising something significant.
On Sunday, a wild weekend ended with Osasuna, this season’s revelation so far, holding Madrid to a 1-1 draw. Kike García headed in a goal that Antonio Rüdiger called “one in a million” and then Benzema hit the bar with a penalty 10 minutes from time – the fourth he has missed in six, three of them against Herrera. It was the first time Madrid had failed to win all season, but enough to allow Lewandowski’s goal to take his team top.
It is very early still, the clásico is coming soon, injuries and the fixture list suggests they will be vulnerable this month, and Barcelona haven’t beaten the most illustrious of opponents: Mallorca, Elche, Cádiz, Valladolid and Sevilla are all bottom half. Their run of six wins and a draw hasn’t been all about Lewandowski either – Marc André ter Stegen extended his run without conceding a goal to a personal best 534 minutes and that’s 18 away games without defeat under Xavi, stretching back to last season. But this is the first time they have been top since June 2020 – when Quique Setién was in charge and stadiums were still empty, 91 matches ago. Valencia, Granada, Betis, Madrid, Getafe, Real Sociedad and Atlético have all been there since but Barcelona haven’t. Lewandowski has, and now he’s back again in a position to compete for his ninth league title in a row, his 11th in 13 years.
“Lewandowski is a blessing,” Xavi says.