Soccer | THE BALD TRUTH

Poland and reality are Poles apart

by Alastair Himmer

Is Jerzy Engel completely deranged? Who on earth is Jerzy Engel, you are probably wondering? (Sigh) I used to talk about muffins and naked grandparents in these columns.

Excuse me while I slip into my anorak for a moment. Engel, for all you non-Poles, is Poland’s national soccer coach and moonlights as a part-time comedian.

“Japan and Poland are outside bets to win the World Cup,” he joked in the buildup to last Wednesday’s friendly against Japan. Except he wasn’t joking. Have a cup of tea and a lie down, Jerzy. That would be my advice.

Engel must have been talking about the World Cup of hotdog eating. (The current world champion is Japanese, believe it or not.)

It is safe to say that Argentina, France and Italy will not be quaking in their boots at the prospect of playing Poland or Japan at the FIFA World Cup this summer.

On the evidence of Japan’s 2-0 victory in Lodz, both teams will struggle to reach the second round this summer.

To call a spade a spade for a moment, it was a dog’s dinner of a game played on a pudding of a pitch and the Poles were absolutely horrible. They looked like a side stranded at the wrong end of the English Nationwide League. Portsmouth goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi must have felt right at home. But enough about Poland.

What of Japan’s chances this summer? In my humble opinion, Japan coach Philippe Troussier must do five things in the wake of the Poland trip and the 1-0 victory over Ukraine on March 21 if he is to have any hope of taking Japan to the knockout stages of the World Cup:

1) Kiss and make up with Hidetoshi Nakata

The Parma midfielder sent Troussier a clear message with an authoritative display against Poland, scoring Japan’s opener in the eighth minute and cajoling teammates into raising their work-rate as tiredness crept in during the second half.

Troussier has offered Nakata an olive branch of sorts by abolishing his rule on compulsory room sharing (although serial shagger Atsushi Yanagisawa will still be kept under armed guard to stop him smuggling bimbos into the team hotel).

Nakata had apparently been unhappy about his roommate’s snoring during the Confederations Cup last summer but his protestations fell upon deaf ears. But now that Troussier has finally conceded that real men do not sleep together it is time to bury the hatchet once and for all.

2) Bin the T-shirt

Arsenal midfielder Junichi Inamoto spent 54 minutes tripping over his bottom lip against Poland before Troussier had the good sense to put him out of his misery.

Inamoto, who is known as “T-shirt” by Arsenal fans for the merchandising revenue he earns the North London club in Japan, has yet to play a Premier League game since moving to England last July. And it shows.

Nakata, Kawaguchi and Shinji Ono all played well after missing the Ukraine friendly, but Inamoto’s plodding performance will have given Troussier an unwanted headache with the World Cup just two months away.

3) Stick with Santos

Brazilian-born wide boy Alessandro Santos did enough in 45 minutes against Ukraine to show he could be Japan’s X-Factor at the World Cup.

Santos, who obtained Japanese citizenship last November, supplied the cross that led to Kazuyuki Toda’s 24th-minute winner and almost capped his debut with a goal of his own when he shaved the post with a first-half free-kick.

The Shimizu S-Pulse star was surprisingly left on the bench in Lodz, where Troussier wanted to give Ono a run-out, but he has clearly been earmarked for an important role at the World Cup.

A defensive liability he may be (although he can’t possibly be worse than Shunsuke Nakamura), but Santos gives Japan more attacking options and would be a serious threat to Group H opponents Belgium, Russia and Tunisia as a second-half substitute.

4) Drop the lab rats

For 35 minutes against Poland, headbangers Takayuki Suzuki and Tatsuhiko Kubo were playing up front together! In a World Cup warmup, ladies and gents! Troussier must resist the urge to ever play these two Charlies at the same time again.

It was a like a lab experiment that had gone horribly wrong. Kubo, who is comfortable with being the Mr. Bean of the Japan squad, must have been terribly confused to be paired with the only player in the country with more wires loose.

Weird science it may have been, but it was wonderfully entertaining stuff for the neutral. The Suzuki-Kubo show reminded me of Monty Python’s “Silly Olympics,” where the blind 100-meter finalists all sprint off in different directions at the starter’s gun. Only that, I gather, was not Troussier’s intention.

5) Drop Takeshi Okada (from a tall building)

This last one is a personal request and has very little to do with anything, much less Japan’s World Cup chances. For those of us who watched with our feet up at home instead of freezing our wotsits off in lovely Lodz, the sight of former Japan coach Okada illuminated in his commentary box after the game rivaled even Kubo for other-worldliness.

Okada looked like Yoda sitting at the controls of the Millennium Falcon, and was about as intelligible.

What did he say after, “Take me to your leader?” I’m not sure; I was hiding behind the sofa, I was so scared.