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Poles fear more Hart ache

Sunday, 14 October 2012 - 10:51am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
City keeper has hold over target man Lewandowski after his heroics in Champions League tie.

Football at its pure, distilled best is a sequence of one-on-one duels, a winger tricking his way past a full-back, a playmaker eluding a dogged man-marker and a centre-forward running through on a keeper.

Warsaw's heaving, seething National Stadium this week could stage one of the defining duels of World Cup qualifying Group H when the pride of Poland, Robert Lewandowski, renews acquaintance with Joe Hart, keeper of England's fortunes.

The pair come face to face 13 days after Lewandowski's Borussia Dortmund threatened to run riot at the Etihad only for Hart's reflexes to keep them largely at bay. "I hope it won't be any different!'' reflected the Manchester City keeper. "Hopefully it won't be as open as the last time I played against him.''

Hart was beaten once, by Germany's Marco Reus, but otherwise seemed to project a force-field around his goal. Lewandowski could be forgiven a certain trepidation this Tuesday as he appeared daunted by Hart's feats in that compelling Champions League match.

Hart is a strong character blessed with a confidence that does not stray into arrogance, so he hardly needs reminding of the hold he had over Lewandowski. It could still be worth Roy Hodgson replaying the keeper clips involving the striker. The tale of the videotape reveals Lewandowski's travails. He wasted two headed chances early on, the second created with a cross from Lukasz Piszczek, whose forays from full-back need close attention by Hodgson's men in Warsaw.

Lewandowski could be haunted by a moment after 76 minutes as he raced through the middle to meet a magnificent cross from the right from Ilkay Gundogan, the ball curled in perfectly to avoid Vincent Kompany. On German TV, the commentator intoned "gut sehr, sehr gut" as the ball hurtled towards Borussia's No?9.

Hart spread himself, attempting to slam shut the window of opportunity. Maybe Lewandowski felt unnerved by Hart, who had been so imperious. The chance was still so inviting and the rising excitement in the commentator's voice indicated a conviction that Lewandowski would surely propel the ball into the City net. He made contact with his right foot, sending a shot past Hart but also past the post. "Wie jetzt? Wie jetzt?'' repeated the commentator, his incredulity shared by Borussia's coach, Jurgen Klopp, who was rubbing his forehead in disbelief.

What now? What now, indeed. After Mario Balotelli equalised, Lewandowski still had a chance to win it for Borussia in injury time but his low, right-footed shot was saved by Hart. England's chances of edging closer to the 2014 World Cup finals rest partly on whether Hart can reprise his Etihad masterclass against a team containing Lewandowski.

The 24-year-old Pole, a mobile target man with 15 goals in 48 internationals, has a growing army of admirers but part of that popularity is based on his usually prolific work for his Bundesliga employers. With Borussia, Lewandowski has so much clever movement about him, fashioning frequent chances for him, particularly through the clever feet of Reus and Mario Gotze and his compatriot Jakub Blaszczykowski. Known as 'Kuba'' (partly because Polish newspapers struggled to get his name in tight headlines), Blaszczykowski is a creative force who drifts in from the right and provided the assist for Lewandowski's goal against Greece as Euro 2012 started with brief promise for the co-hosts. Fortunately for England, Blaszczykowski has hurt his left ankle and will be absent in Warsaw.

He will be a big loss. Hart voiced his respect for all Borussia's Polish contingent. "They were great players who were sharp and play football well,'' he said.

Piszczek will forage up the flank but the key is Lewandowski. Tuesday offers an opportunity to remind the doubters, and more importantly managers of wealthier clubs, of his talents. Largely anonymous against Arsenal last season, barring a nutmeg on Laurent Koscielny and a couple of chances against Wojciech Szczesny, Lewandowski has raised his game and is increasingly linked with a move to the Premier League. Poland's former coach, Franciszek Smuda, even predicted last summer that the forward was off to Manchester United. Borussia fought to keep him, their chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, arguing: "We won't give up Robert for any money in the world. We don't want to open a bank.''

His wages are relatively modest, reportedly around pounds 25,000 a week. 'Lewa' has a deal that expires in the summer of 2014, meaning the clock is ticking louder on either contract negotiations or a sale next year. Arsenal and United have both scouted him.

Lewandowski will certainly have the support of a fired-up Warsaw crowd. "It is going to be a tough game,'' admitted Hart. "That is

the beauty of international football, when you are playing away you are playing against the nation. I am looking forward to playing in a good arena in front of a lot of people. We will have that pocket of fans who we always take and are awesome. We will look to them and be inspired by them.

"It will be a new experience for some of the youngsters but players adapt and that is the beauty of young players now. They don't play with any fear. I am not exactly old [25] but I was a young player once and you really look forward to games like this. I enjoy playing football, especially for my country in big games that really mean things. That is the beauty of qualifiers and tournaments - they really do mean a great deal to myself as well. I don't think many of them [England's young players] will really expect what will happen. They see Poland and you know it will be a big game in a new stadium and with the belief they have got in Polish football at the moment, it will be exciting."

Hart holds Poland's support in regard, following the warm welcome England received in their Krakow base during Euro 2012. "We felt a lot of love from the Polish people,'' added Hart.

Since being bizarrely ignored by Fabio Capello at the 2010 World Cup, Hart has become a mainstay, popular with his upbeat character off the pitch and highly respected because of his abilities on it. Wayne Rooney was so impressed with Hart during the Borussia game that he tweeted that the City keeper was the best in the world.

When Rooney went off in the second half against San Marino, Hart took the armband. "It was nice," he said. "But I think it means a bit more when you start with it and it was great for Wazza to have it in a proper [competitive] game. He took his two goals and led the team well. He is a big character." So is Hart. England expect him to stand up to the big threat of Lewandowski. Again.


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