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Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005

J. WALKING

Allardyce not quite ready to throw Nakata into Premiership pool


Just how well does Sam Allardyce know Hidetoshi Nakata?

Jeremy Walker

Not very well at all, it appears, as he continues to delay Nakata's debut for Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League.

Nakata must have been as frustrated as the Japanese fans at the Reebok Stadium on Sunday when Bolton's home game with Blackburn Rovers ended in a grim and goalless stalemate.

As the second half wore on and the Bolton midfielders began to tire, it seemed the perfect opportunity for Big Sam to give Nakata his first taste of the Premiership.

First he took off the Greek winger Stelios Giannakopoulos, and replaced him with the Jamaican flyer Ricardo Gardner.

Then off came striker Kevin Davies, and on went the Mexican marksman Jared Borgetti. That was in the 70th minute, and it would be the last anyone saw of Borgetti as he disappeared into the mayhem of a fast and furious Lancashire derby.

With one more substitution to make, it had to be Jay-Jay Okocha who gave way, as the Bolton captain was struggling to keep up with the pace.

Surely this was Nakata's moment, as he would be able to replace the Nigerian sorcerer and give some support to the stranded Borgetti up front.

But no, Allardyce sent on the defensive midfielder Nicky Hunt with 12 minutes to go, leaving Nakata to improve his English conversation alongside reserve keeper Ian Walker on the bench.

On a couple of occasions since signing Nakata on loan from Fiorentina, Allardyce has said he would need time to adapt to the English game and that's just the training.

But Nakata has proved he can look after himself, notably in the Rome derby for AS Roma against Lazio and in every Serie A game and in two World Cups for Japan.

Unlike the lightweight Shunsuke Nakamura, Nakata is a tough and fearless competitor. He flies into tackles and is difficult to shake off the ball. Or, rather, he used to be difficult to dispossess, until Francesco Totti and the other Italian masters taught him how to go to the ground and win a free-kick at the slightest of contact.

But Nakata is smart enough to know, just like Jurgen Klinsmann during his Tottenham days, that referees won't fall for that in England, and that play will continue while the fans laugh and opposing defenders offer a few gentle words of advice.

So all the comments from Big Sam about Nakata not being ready physically don't ring true for observers who have followed his career closely since his days with Bellmare Hiratsuka.

Nakata is ready for the Premiership, and he has the skill, the speed and the power to make his mark.

It has to be said, though, that the Bolton-Blackburn game was not a pretty sight.

With Robbie Savage on one side (Blackburn) and Kevin Nolan on the other (Bolton), it was no place for the faint-hearted, and tackles, fouls, long passes and hurried crosses were the order of the day.

Occasionally the TV cameras flashed to the Bolton bench, where Nakata looked a bit bemused by the rough-and-tumble, end-to-end style. After seven years in Italy, it must have seemed like a totally different sport, the kind of blood-and-thunder encounter that makes the more sophisticated, cynical Italians laugh at the English game.

Play was so disjointed and scrappy that, on occasions, it was difficult to work out who was playing which way, until a free-kick sorted out the chaos.

The most creative player on the pitch turned out to be Bolton's behemoth, Ivan Campo, with his long throw-ins from the right. Okocha was hardly in it, suggesting that Nakata's debut might not be too far away.

Like on Thursday night, when Allardyce's men play their historic first ever match in European competition, at home to . . . wait for it . . . Lokomotiv Plovdiv of Bulgaria in the UEFA Cup. The very name, Plovdiv, deserves an away goal before they even kick off, but the eastern European qualities should not be underestimated.

With only 22 players in his squad, including recent recruit Fabrice Fernandes, and with Manchester City away on Sunday, Allardyce looks sure to spread the workload. Thanks to his European competition experience from Italy, it seems the right time to give Nakata his debut.

But Allardyce is mistaken if he thinks Nakata can't handle the rough stuff.

On the subject of Blackburn Rovers, Brad Friedel did not have too much trouble in keeping a clean sheet against Bolton.

The American 'keeper was rarely tested, although Campo should have buried a header late in the first half but put it over the bar.

With the United States having qualified for next summer's World Cup, head coach Bruce Arena will have a strong contingent of keepers in Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard.

And there's plenty more where they came from, according to Yokohama F. Marinos' Dutch goalkeeping coach, Dido Havenaar.

He's passed his coaching badges in the States, and puts the success of the keepers down to their formative years in the sports world.

"They all have such good hand-eye coordination because they play basketball, American football and baseball. Playing goalkeeper comes more naturally to them because they can use these special skills," says Dido, who is now a naturalized Japanese.

With Manchester City's Claudio Reyna the man of the match in the Manchester derby against United at Old Trafford on Saturday, it was another good weekend for the Americans.

But will anyone respect them in Germany next year?

Player of the Week: Cristiano Lucarelli.

The Livorno striker, who was prevented from making a lucrative move to Tottenham by his club president, bagged the late winner in a 1-0 victory at Treviso in Serie A action Sunday. The 29-year-old with the No. 99 shirt number is surely one of the best value-for-money forwards in Italy.

Quote of the Week: "This is not the England I want to be part of and none of the players want that either. It is up to us to put that right."

-- England captain David Beckham, after his team's humiliating 1-0 defeat by Northern Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in Belfast. Beckham, however, still has "total belief" England will qualify for Germany 2006.



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