Football: Poles twist the tale

Norman Fox says that Naples will be just as vital to England as Wembley

Virtually everyone said that even though Italy only won 1-0 at Wembley last February, in reality they walked all over England. But Glenn Hoddle felt obliged to claim that they had done no such thing. He said that England were the better side and had every chance of beating Italy to the automatic qualifying spot in World Cup Group Two. Possibly he still believes it, but it would be surprising if on Wednesday he is not just as concerned about Poland taking points off Italy in Naples as England beating Georgia at Wembley.

The outcome of this crucial parallel match in the group could assist, frustrate or all but destroy any hopes Hoddle has of taking the direct route to France for the 1998 finals rather than the complicated qualifying system for runners-up. Victory for Italy and defeat for England would see him searching for the prayer mat. The only compensation would be that the dangerous Poles would be kept at bay for that runners-up spot.

Hoddle says he thought the recent goalless draw between Poland and Italy in Chorzow provided "a glimmer of light that could allow opportunities". The best opportunity he can hope for is that results become so favourable that come October, England will go to Italy knowing exactly what they need to do. But by then Italy could well be on the way to complete recovery from the depression that they suffered under Arrigo Sacchi.

The way their 64-year-old new coach, Cesare Maldini, has been engineering Italy's return to a style of play that comes naturally - keeping the opposition under control in the middle and never risking too much going forward - Hoddle's hope of automatic qualification is not one on which to risk a heavy gamble. Poland, as always, are the problem team - the one nobody likes to play; one with a record of destroying other people's hopes, not least those of England. They expect to remain unbeaten at home throughout the qualifying group matches. Then the group would really be tough.

The Poles are used to being underestimated. So they could assist England this week by standing firm against the Italians. Standing firm and breaking out quickly from defence is what the Poles do well. Indeed, they could have beaten Italy earlier this month were it not for the fact that their clever play-maker, Piotr Nowak, was injured in the first half and missed the second.

If all managers need to have luck, Maldini certainly had his share in Chorzow, but under his direction Italy now seem to have shed the misgivings that developed under Sacchi, who had brought confusion with his tactics. Now, Italy are playing more comfortably. Maldini may not have made sweeping changes in the squad but he likes to use a sweeper, without which Italian international teams are never really content. Surprisingly, he has given Alessandro Costacurta the job. The Milan player, who had no serious experience in the role, joined with Fabio Cannavaro, of Parma, to subdue Alan Shearer at Wembley.

Maldini is intending to use a settled squad more purposefully than Sacchi. He is also experiencing that comfortable early period of an international manager's career when a point away from home, as in Chorzow, is interpreted by fans and press as one gained. Even if this week he has to be without Gianfranco Zola and needs to recall Roberto Baggio after nearly 18 months, the feeling of continuity in style is unlikely to be badly broken.

The Poles are unlikely to win but are gaining confidence, partly because they are reassured by their remaining matches - their last two are against Moldova and Georgia - but also because they are building on the predictions of their coach, Antoni Piechniczek, who expects Italy to qualify, but doubts whether England will finish ahead of Poland. His reason - "England have not got the right players" - sounds a little short on detail. Perhaps he means that with Paul Gascoigne in decline, England have no one with the creative talent of Nowak or Marek Citko.

Meanwhile, even without Zola, Italy contain enough talent to win on Wednesday. They also - at last - seem to have that talent properly organised.

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