After accounting for San Marino in their opening EURO 2004™ qualifying match, the Zbigniew Boniek era begins in earnest on Saturday when Poland tackle a Latvia side buoyed by a promising first showing in Group 4.
No laughing matter
When Boniek accepted the challenge of coaching the Polish national side following a lacklustre showing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, he joked of being "guaranteed stress and sleepless nights". The first 74 minutes of his first competitive match against the Sanmarinese were no laughing matter before late goals from Pawel Kaczorowski and Maruisz Kukielka secured a 2-0 win.
This section is perhaps the most open of the eight qualifying groups, a notion given further credence by Latvia's 0-0 home draw with Sweden. Boniek has warned against underestimating the Latvians, particularly as Emmanuel Olisadebe, Radoslaw Kaluzny and Jacek Bak are all out of contention with injuries.
'Many good players'
"It is not only [Marian] Pahars who will be a threat," Boniek said. "They have many good players." Yet Boniek, who scored 24 times in 80 internationals for Poland and helped his country finish third at the 1982 World Cup, remains confident of extending Poland's advantage at the summit, saying: "If we win, we are in a great position in the group. Latvia are a good team, but we are better and we will do our best to prove that on the pitch."
In the absence of a number of established players, Boniek has called-up midfield player Marek Zienczuk, 24, of KS Amica Wronki for the first time, while Jacek Zielinksi, returning from injury, and Krzysztof Ratajczyk were also included. As was Tomasz Hajto, the FC Schalke 04 defender who was one of the players previously dropped after Poland's early exit in the Far East.
The man who guided Poland to the World Cup, Jerzy Engel, is confident that his successor can prove equally successful at leading the side to qualification to Portugal. "I think it is almost our duty to qualify for EURO 2004," Engel told uefa.com. "The experience of qualifying for the World Cup should stand us in good stead." Defender Mariusz Lewandowski added: "The players realise what this match means. If everyone gives his best we should be fine."
If Latvia are to secure one of the top two places in Group 4 it is imperative that they avoid defeat in Warsaw. Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs had much to be pleased about following his side's nullifying of Sweden and he will hope for a similarly parsimonious display from his defence against the Polish. It is in attack where Starkovs could spring a surprise, having included promising Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC forward Andrejs Prohorenkovs for the first time.
'Year to prepare'
Saturday's other Group 4 fixture sees Hungary, on the 100th anniversary of their first-ever international, travel to the Råsunda stadium to tackle Sweden. Imre Gellei, the coach of Hungary has called for a surprise result in Stockholm. "We'll have to fight for a win in Sweden but we've had a year to prepare players for this squad," he said. "Unpredictable teams at the World Cup caused Sweden trouble and there are players in my squad who are good at improvising too."
One such player, Hertha BSC Berlin's Pál Dárdai, sat out training in Tata on Wednesday with a high temperature but is expected to play as the Hungarians look to build on impressive recent results - which include a 1-1 draw with Spain and a 2-0 victory in Iceland.
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