Zarkowski poleaxes Irish hope

Northern Ireland 0 - Poland 3
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The Independent Football

When Lawrie Sanchez took over as manager of Northern Ireland in February his team scored their first goal in 1,298 minutes and then went on a six-game unbeaten streak. Poland lost their last match 5-1 at home to Denmark. But these games were all friendlies. This one was a Group Six World Cup qualifier and reality hit hard in balmy Belfast yesterday afternoon.

When Lawrie Sanchez took over as manager of Northern Ireland in February his team scored their first goal in 1,298 minutes and then went on a six-game unbeaten streak. Poland lost their last match 5-1 at home to Denmark. But these games were all friendlies. This one was a Group Six World Cup qualifier and reality hit hard in balmy Belfast yesterday afternoon.

Not that Poland, who play host England on Wednesday, were that impressive as Sanchez's side hit the self-destruct button almost from the start. And while England will not be unduly concerned by Poland's form, despite the margin of this victory, Wales will be even less worried by the display from Northern Ireland, who go to Cardiff in midweek to continue what even the competing teams expect to be a battle for second place (behind England).

The Poland coach, Pawel Janas, commented: "That was a good chance for us to practise against a British style of football and we can expect more of the same when we play England and Wales. We will assess the England match against Austria before we decide how to play, but I was very impressed with them during Euro 2004. We will not settle for second place but aim to finish as high as we possibly can. Obviously Wales and Austria will be difficult too."

Poland, ranked 29th in the world, were well organised and competent, but Northern Ireland's hopes were blown out of proportion in the build-up and their chances of a result in this game went when they gifted the Poles a freak early lead directly from a corner.

Poland did not qualify for a major tournament between Mexico '86 and the 2002 finals in Japan and Korea, but are up and running with confidence behind them now. Northern Ireland have been nowhere since '86 and probably needed to win or draw this game to stand a realistic chance of going to Germany in two years time.

"Poland are ranked 80 places above us in the world and the only place it showed was in the quality of the finishing," Sanchez said. "But we expected that and I told the players that anything ahead of fifth place in our group will be a bonus. Poland are the second-ranked team in the group, but England could have even more quality than them when it comes to finishing. We don't have loads of goals in us, but we will need to cut out the mistakes when we play Wales on Wednesday because they have quality finishers too."

Northern Ireland came out to a sold-out Windsor Park for the first time in 11 years, since the Republic of Ireland last came here. They were initially full of hope and good cheer and were still singing at the end. There were a fair few Polish supporters in the 14,000 crowd too, but most of the noise was generated by the drums and voices of the green-shirted folk behind Maik Taylor in the Ireland goal.

The game was still not fully four minutes old, though, when Maciej Zurawski curled in a corner from the left towards the near post where Taylor's Birmingham City colleague Damian Johnson seemed well placed to clear. Johnson appeared to duck out of the way, however, and the ball flew straight into the goal. Sanchez had no explanation for the error, but Johnson's action indicated he was either scared of getting hit in the face or heard a call to leave it.

Johnson almost made amends by sending in a decent free-kick which David Healy headed inches over the cross-bar two minutes later and soon found himself clear on goal, in the 14th minute, only to screw a right-foot shot well wide.

The Poles were still the better team when they doubled their lead eight minutes before half-time. A long, hopeful clearance by Poland's Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek found Aaron Hughes and Stephen Craigan hesitant at the back, allowing the Legia Warsaw striker Piotr Wlodarczyk to nip in between them and score with a low right-foot shot.

Northern Ireland were playing for all but pride now and Hughes was left stranded on his own again in the 57th minute when three Polish players mounted an attack. Wlodarczyk and Zurawski combined to set up the impressive Jacek Krzynowek to shoot past Taylor for Poland's third goal from just outside the penalty area.

Sanchez was desperate now and had little option but to send on another striker in the form of Norwich City's Paul McVeigh. But none of the Northern Ireland strikers really looked like scoring even when Poland were reduced to 10 men when the Dutch referee Jan Wegereef showed Wlodarczyk a straight red card for striking Williams with 10 minutes to go. The goalscorer Wlodarczyk will now miss the England game too.

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