After four seasons competing for the No 1 spot at Arsenal, Lukasz Fabianski and Wojciech Szczesny have spent the past three apart, but their rivalry still rumbles on at national level. With just under three weeks until Poland kick off their World Cup campaign, Michael Hincks analyses their battle to become the country’s first-choice goalkeeper in Russia.
Arsene Wenger had a difficult decision to make in 2010-11. Manuel Almunia had been Arsenal’s No 1 for the past three campaigns, but an error-prone display against West Brom six Premier League games in saw the Spaniard come under heavy scrutiny.
He was subsequently dropped, and though Wenger insisted it was down to an elbow injury, it was to be Almunia’s last league game for six months. In came Fabianski, initially at least, but a shoulder injury then saw Szczesny finish the campaign.
Perhaps it was the fortune of finishing that season between the sticks, or simply that Wenger was most impressed by him, but Szczesny went on to play every minute of the following league campaign, with Fabianski reduced to a spot on the bench 30 times. Almunia, meanwhile, was a distant No 3.
Fabianski remained in Szczesny’s shadow until he called time on his seven-year Arsenal career and moved to Swansea in July 2014. As the undisputed first choice in south Wales, Fabianski has gone on to make 150 appearances for them.
Under seven different managers, Swansea slipped further and further down the Premier League table in each of Fabianski’s four seasons at the club, and though they eventually succumbed to relegation a couple of weeks ago, few, if any, blame their goalkeeper for the drop to the Sky Bet Championship.
Fabianski’s 2017-18 PL season in numbers Games 38 Goals conceded 56 Clean sheets 9 Saves 137 Save percentage 70.83% Errors leading to goals 0 Errors leading to shots 2
No goalkeeper made more saves in the Premier League this season (137), while only David de Gea (80.20%) and Nick Pope (76.51%) boasted a better save percentage than Fabianski (70.83), who kept nine clean sheets and made zero errors leading to goals. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough, but relegation has not damaged his reputation.
In the meantime, Szczesny remained Arsenal’s No 1 before heading to Italy upon Petr Cech’s arrival in the summer of 2015. He has plied his trade in Serie A ever since, and following two seasons on loan at Roma, he is now on the verge of becoming Juventus’ first choice with Gianluigi Buffon moving on.
“Szczesny is Buffon’s heir, I’ve already said that and I repeat it,” said Juventus coach Max Allegri back in January, while distancing himself from a move for AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma. “Juventus did good business in getting such a good player and bringing him in a year before Gigi stops at Juventus. Donnarumma is a young lad who has to grow, he’s at Milan and he’s forging his path. But Juventus have Buffon’s replacement.”
So for Poland, it’s between Buffon’s replacement and one of the Premier League’s standout goalkeepers this season. But who will manager Adam Nawalka turn to when their World Cup campaign begins against Senegal on June 19? Polish football writer for Laczy Nas Pilka, Michal Zachodny, believes the decision will go to the wire.
“I think he will make a choice in the same way he did it two years ago, waiting until last training camp to announce his decision,” Zachodny told Sky Sports.
“The final part of qualification was more or less split between Fabianski and Szczesny, with both getting two games in a row.”
Indeed, this tussle has swayed both ways since Euro 2016. Szczesny started the tournament in France, but a thigh strain in the opening game against Northern Ireland saw Fabianski step in and thrive en route to the quarter-finals, conceding just two goals before they were defeated by eventual winners Portugal on penalties.
Fabianski’s heroics at Euro 2016 certainly changed the way Polish fans felt about their back-up goalkeeper, as Zachodny explains, with his exploits at Swansea not going unnoticed some 1,000 miles east.
“Until Euro 2016, Szczesny had a bigger fan base, which is perhaps a reflection of his personality, as well as his heroics against Germany in the first-ever win over them in 2014,” Zachodny added.
“But I guess things have changed slightly after Euro 2016. When Fabianski stepped in he was brilliant, especially against Switzerland. Fans will remember his tears after that quarter-final exit, as well as his great form in Swansea this season, despite relegation.
“Many of them debate whether he should be a top-six goalkeeper in the Premier League or not. Szczesny is still popular, and a safe choice. After all, he was picked to step in at Juventus after Buffon’s goodbye. But that only reflects how hard Adam Nawalka’s choice will be, even if that is the headache many other managers would like to have.”
An enviable headache, it would seem, particularly with Gareth Southgate under pressure to get to choose wisely from one of Jordan Pickford, Jack Butland and Nick Pope.
But for Poland, it’s testimony to Fabianski’s development since leaving Arsenal that this decision is too close to call.
Who goes on to claim the No 1 jersey remains in the realm of the unknown, but with Szczesny set to become first pick at Juve, it’s clear Fabianski must choose his next step wisely at club level to keep this headache going.
He has reportedly asked to leave Swansea this summer in his bid to continue at the highest level, and having flourished in adversity, there are likely to be many takers. If he gets the nod and impresses in Russia, he may garner a few more.
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