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Football: Keegan has no fear of Poland

Euro 2000: Buoyant England coach confident of reaching play-offs with a flourish against the old enemy
APPEARANCES CAN be deceptive in Warsaw. The medieval old town is barely 50 years old, having been rebuilt after the war, while Stalin's "gift" to the city, the gothic Palace of Culture and Sport, was actually paid for by its inhabitants.

The illusions continue in the suburbs where a leafy park conceals a notorious football ground. It is in this arena, tonight, that we will find out whether England's rediscovered confidence, and Kevin Keegan's Midas touch, are also facades.

They were still putting the finishing touches to the Wojska Polskiego stadium yesterday morning, welding bright red bucket seats - for which touts are charging up to pounds 250 to sit in - on to the concrete terraces. Sepp Blatter, the president of football's world governing body, Fifa, is coming and, while the ground may sound like a bearpit, the Poles hope it will look more like a theatre.

While the welders worked on one side of the 20 ft-high fence which ringed the pitch on the other, Keegan was seeking to complete a similar transformation from ramshackle to respectable. A journey that began, under his predecessor Glenn Hoddle, with shattered optimism across the Baltic in Sweden a year ago this week has reached what Keegan hopes will be the penultimate step on the road to Euro 2000. Victory would ensure a place in the November play-offs. A draw leaves England waiting on other results. Defeat and the 1996 semi-finalists are out.

In a sport prone to hyperbole it was no exaggeration to say, as Keegan did yesterday, that this is England's most important match since the World Cup. Indeed, it may be more important than any in France as failing to qualify for major tournaments is more serious than failing in them.

Keegan missed out on two World Cups and a European Championship in his playing career and he reflected that his development as a player was affected by the failure. "There is nothing like playing in big tournaments for experience. It is one thing for Kieron Dyer to play Luxembourg at home, it is another entirely to play in a semi-final on the big stage."

Fail tonight and England's qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup will be affected before it begins. Young players will be short of experience while those that have it may be prematurely retired. "There will be a massive push to throw kids in," admitted Keegan, "that's what we are like in England. And the matches we will play will be friendlies and it is so hard to get players for those."

Defeat will also cost the FA an estimated pounds 100m in lost revenue and affect a series of spin-off industries - Sporting Index, for example, thinks it would result in a pounds 25m drop in betting turnover and the brewers would suffer even more.

Keegan has two key selection quandaries as he attempts to forestall such repercussions: Who plays at right-back, and who partners Alan Shearer in attack? Dyer's calf injury, which continues to trouble him, complicates the first. Keegan, aware of the threat posed by the left-winger Miroslaw Trzeciak, seemed to be favouring his pace over Gary Neville's experience.

In attack there are no injury problems with Michael Owen, said Keegan, "looking ready" despite a lack of match practice. "He may not have been playing but he doesn't look rusty, he is a special player," said the coach. So Owen plays? Not necessarily, as Keegan added: "I like the combination of Robbie Fowler and Alan Shearer." That may well be the starting partnership with Owen to come off the bench at some stage.

With Tony Adams and David Beckham passed fit - though Beckham seemed to wary of his troublesome hamstring in training - the only other concern is Martin Keown, who sat out training with a sore Achilles tendon. Gareth Southgate stands by.

Assuming David Beckham is fit, he is likely to revert to the right flank with Paul Scholes returning from suspension in central midfield and Steve McManaman back on the left. If Dyer plays, the 4-4-2 formation could easily become 3-5-2.

The Poles have a weak domestic league but their national side are largely based in western Europe, with five players in the Bundesliga and only two likely starters remaining in Poland. "They are disciplined, organised with a good spirit," said Keegan picking out Trzeciak, Tomasz Ivan, Tomasz Hajto and the goalkeeper Adam Matysek for special praise.

The Polish squad were honoured with a personal audience with their president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, on Monday and have been offered a $250,000 (pounds 156,000) win bonus but, according to the local press, are feeling the pressure after only managing a 5-3 win over a second division club in a weekend warm-up. Their manager, Janusz Wojcik, has said he expects to be sacked if Poland lose but is predicting a repeat of 1973 when Poland denied England a place in the 1974 World Cup finals.

Keegan preferred to draw inspiration from the following decades. "The situation is a bit like in 1981 when we went to the Nep Stadium needing to win and beat Hungary 3-1 [Keegan scoring]. We will look to get out of the blocks quickly just we did when we won 2-0 in Poland in 1997. I always like a team to start well, it helps your confidence and allows the players to attack the match in a positive manner."

To judge from training, morale is high but there is also a sense of purpose. England have a poor record on the road in September with only one win, in Moldova, in 20 years. But they have the players to win and, this time, give the impression that they will make their superior quality count. Their supporters will hope that this is not another Warsaw illusion.

Richard Williams, page 26; Scots `underdogs', page 27