Seven heaven gives Rasiak right to believe

Tottenham's striking Pole has been spurred by a higher spirit in the camp. Jonathan Wilson reports
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Last week, before his side's qualification was assured, he said: "Maybe I should put a bet on. Then I'll be happy either way."

Really? How much money would he have swapped for an appearance in Germany next summer? What would it have taken for a well-to-do England fan to persuade him to stick a couple in his own net at Old Trafford on Wednesday? A laugh made it clear that the dream of playing in a World Cup far outweighed any financial consideration. "For me the best thing would be for both England and Poland to qualify," the Tottenham striker said diplomatically - and his wish has been fulfilled.

Yet when England won 2-1 in Chorzow last September, the thought that Poland might approach the final qualifier in, ahem, pole position seemed laughable. An unlikely victory for Latvia in Sweden had denied Pawel Janas's side a qualifying play-off for Euro 2004, and when the 2004-05 season began with a 5-1 home loss to Denmark in a friendly and a far-from-convincing win over Northern Ireland, defeat by Arkadiusz Glowacki's own goal seemed to signal another qualifying series of toil and disappointment.

The Denmark game was followed by crisis meetings after which Jerzy Dudek, whose elbow injury will prevent him taking his place in the Polish goal on Wednesday, made clear his opinion that certain players "were not playing for the team", but since then both Dudek and Rasiak insist morale has been restored. Seven straight competitive victories after the England defeat tells their own story.

"It's amazing that winning eight out of nine qualifiers wasn't enough to qualify us," Rasiak said. "I'm sure in any other year it would have been. There's a great spirit in the side now, and even if we felt a bit empty when we realised that the win over Wales [last month] wasn't enough, we all just got on with focusing on this next game."

Poland's great strength has been the counterattacking of their forward line. Rasiak, his height and technical ability leading him to a role of provider for the centre-forward, Maciej Zurawski, and the quick-breaking midfielders Jacek Krzynowek and Ebi Smolarek, has yet to score in the qualifiers, but those around him have contributed 26 goals in the nine games to date, and the general quality of their play has even drawn cautious comparison with the magnificent Poland side that finished third last time the World Cup was played in Germany, in 1974.

That team, of course, eliminated England in qualifying, which, at least Poland cannot do on Wednesday, though top place in the group will be at stake. "We all remember Wembley 1973," Rasiak said. "Even those of us who weren't born then. It's part of our history. If you're a goalkeeper you want to be like Jan Tomaszewski; if you're a forward you want to score the crucial goal like Jan Domarski. But this is a very different situation."

Poland, for one thing, are not the unknown quantity they were then, with many of their stars playing abroad, but that in itself, Rasiak believes, is one of the reasons they have prospered, benefiting from better training facilities and a higher level of competition. Of Wednesday's likely starting XI, nine (inc-luding Zurawski and Artur Boruc of Celtic, Krzynowek of Bayer Leverkusen and Smol-arek of Borussia Dortmund) play outside Poland, the weakness of whose league is demonstrated by the fact that not a single Polish club qualified for the group stages of the Uefa Cup, never mind the Champions' League.

"Moving to Spurs is a big step up for me," Rasiak said. "When I made my debut against Liverpool I was amazed by how much faster everything was." He only went to Derby the previous season after a move to Siena collapsed when the Italian club went bankrupt, but Rasiak has no regrets. "I loved it at Derby," he said. "I always said I wouldn't leave for a very good offer, only a great one, and that's what Tottenham gave me."

Wednesday's game will bring Rasiak into direct confrontation with one of his new team-mates in Paul Robinson. "He's an excellent goalkeeper," Rasiak said. "I know how tough he is to beat in training, but I will be thinking about how I might score against him." As for the rest of the England side, he is bewildered by the pessimism the defeat in Belfast has provoked. "They're still great players," he said.

Rasiak can now expect to see them in Germany, though he certainly won't be helping them on Wednesday.

Additional reporting by Maciej Iwanski