Friday, September 4, 2009

Qualifier Preview: Northern Ireland at Poland

To outsiders unfamiliar with the long histories of the peoples involved, the idea of the British Isles fielding five national soccer teams seems silly. Almost absurd.

But there you have it: England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each mount their own World Cup campaigns each four years. And four of those "countries" are actually part of Great Britain and ruled from London.

Perhaps it is no surprise that England is the only member of that Balkanized quintet to have accomplished much in recent World Cup finals.

Wales hasn't been to a World Cup since 1958 (not even Ryan Giggs was alive then). Scotland has made eight World Cup finals appearances but never survived the first round. Ireland has been to only three World Cups (though all three have been since 1990, and that 1990 team got to the quarterfinals).

Then there is Northern Ireland, which has only three World Cup appearances, and none since 1986.

(Ulstermen, however, note that Northern Ireland, population 1.7 million, was the smallest country to have played in the World Cup, until Trinidad & Tobago qualified in 2006, and remains the smallest country to make the second round.)

This Northern Ireland team, though, has a chance to end a 24-year drought. But getting at least one point at to-date-disappointing Poland on Saturday would seem to be required.

As you can see in the European Group 3 standings, the Ulstermen have a shot at winning the group, and an even better one of finishing at least second and getting into a home-and-home playoff for one of the final four of Europe's 13 South Africa 2010 berths.

Getting a result out of the small and remote Polish city of Chorzow won't be easy, and may hinge on whether star forward David Healy, who plays for Premiership squad Sunderland, can end his six-match international goal drought. Healy has 35 goals in 75 national team appearances, and told the Belfast Telegraph this week that he feels ready to break out of his slump.

Northern Ireland also can look for scoring from midfielder Grant McCann, who has two in group play, or forwards Kyle Lafferty and Warren Feeney.

The Ulstermen seem likely to be very cautious in going forward because Poland desperately needs three points from a win, and star defender Jonny Evans (Manchester United) and veteran keeper Maik Taylor (Birmingham City) figure to be busy in the back.

The Poles have been regular participants in the finals for the past few decades, appearing in six of the last nine World Cups and twice (1974, 1982) finishing third. Indeed, looking at this group a year ago the teams that seemed most likely to finish first and second were Poland and the Czech Republic -- which lags behind even Poland in the group standings.

Poland got itself into this fix by taking a 1-1 draw at home against little Slovenia and losing 3-2 at Belfast against even littler Northern Ireland.

Ebi Smolarek, a forward who plays for Dutch club Feyenoord, is Poland's most dangerous attacker; he has six goals in four group qualifying matches -- though five came in a pair of victories over San Marino.

Naturalized Brazilian Roger Guerreio is a scoring threat, as is veteran midfielder Jacek Krzynowek, who plays for Hannover 96.

The Poles have been a bit leaky in the back, conceding seven goals in the four matches that weren't against San Marino. Goalkeeper Artur Boruc, who plays for Scottish club Celtic, has the experience, but it isn't clear if coach Leo Beenhakker, the well-traveled Dutchman, will have Boruc in the starting 11. The major presence on the back line is veteran (and captain) Michal Zewlakow, who scored in the previous match with Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has been giving out hints of playing conservatively and perhaps hoping for a scoreless draw, with a long-range hope that none of its pursuers can scrape up enough victories to catch it. But that seems a dangerous strategy because the Ulsterman have only two qualifying matches left after this one, and both appear difficult -- home against group leader Slovakia next week, and on the road against the Czechs next month.

Poland, meanwhile, doesn't have an easy path, either. It gets Slovenia on the road next week, then plays the Czechs away and finishes at home against Slovakia -- which likely will be playing for championship of the group. The home match against Northern Ireland actually looks like the most winnable of the four matches to be played.

If either Northern Ireland or Poland can take three points out of Saturday match, it changes the nature of the group radically.

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