Goals from Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard in the closing stages of each halve mean England can safely book its tickets to next year’s World Cup after am impressive, if nervy 2-0 victory over Poland at Wembley Stadium. Needing a win to finish top of their group after Ukraine secured their expected win in San Marino, Rooney continued his superb scoring record with his most important to date four minutes before half time. And England’s captain then stepped up in the final minutes to ensure that there would be no late anguish as Gerrard himself suffered in missing out on Euro 2008.
England’s opening goal came in a superb 20-minute spell which proved too much for their opponents. But there was plenty of tension for the rest of the match, with Poland playing its part in an engaging contest and especially threatening England’s rear guard in the early stages of both halves. Indeed, had Robert Lewandowski been at his usual clinical best, it might have been a very different story.
Yet, England deserved both their victory and their place in Brazil next year. On the back of the win against Montenegro, it was another impressive performance and another in which Roy Hodgson confounded his critics with his bold selections and positive tactics. The decision to go with Andros Townsend, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge again paid dividends. But that front four, combined with the selection of Michael Carrick and Gerrard in midfield, certainly left England vulnerable on the break and it is hard to imagine Hodgson being so caviler against the standard of opponents he will come up against next summer. That, though, is a discussion for another day and Hodgson deserves much credit for leading his side through a tricky qualification group undefeated.
In front of around 20,000 of their own fans, Poland began with an impetus and positivity that belied their inability to make it to Brazil. And Robert Lewandowski was heavily involved in the early going. Indeed, twice England were exposed on the break from their own corners and could have fallen behind.
The first occasion saw the Borussia Dortmund striker go it alone with a run all the way to the edge of the England box before firing timidly at Joe Hart. There was an even bigger threat just past the 20 minute mark when Jakub Blaszczykowski stepped over to let the ball run to his club mate, but Lewandowski’s usual sharpness in front of goal was missing as he dragged a shot wide. With Waldemar Sobota also firing wide, there was plenty of nerves around Wembley, with England too often being found less than solid through the middle.
But with 25 minutes gone, England began to increase their intensity both with and without the ball. Townsend was again heavily involved coming in from the left and came agonizingly close to making it two spectacular goals in two caps. This time, though, on his stronger left foot the winger’s curling effort crashed back off the cross bar. Danny Welbeck then should have put his side in front but smashed wide on his weaker foot from six yards after a corner fell his way.
Still, there was much to admire about England’s linkup play. Rooney was heavily involved as a fulcrum behind Daniel Sturridge, while Leighton Baines consistently provided an extra dimension out wide on the left that, for all his qualities, Ashley Cole does not. There was a sense of inevitability about England’s vital opening goal as well as the source of it.
Carrick deserves credit for getting the ball out to Baines early but then it was all about the delivery from the left-back as he whipped it onto the edge of the six-yard box where Rooney, headband removed, headed it powerfully down into the corner.
But if England thought that the job was done and that Poland would fade gently into the night, it was given a stark warning right at the start of the second half. England were caught at sea as Blaszczykowski cut in from the left and it was only a block from Gary Cahill that prevented half-time substitute Mateusz Klich’s first touch from likely ending up in the back of the net.
There were chances for England to get a most welcome second goal; Cahill and Rooney both saw efforts saved by Wojciech Szczesny, while Grzegorz Krychowiak came desperately close to scoring an own goal. But the hosts had lost their impetus from late in the first half. Another real scare came when Lewandowski was played in between two England defenders but again failed to show the prolific touch he so often does for Dortmund and allowed Hart to come out and make a saving block.
Yet, as it had in the first half, Poland waned as the period wore on. When England were well set, the visitors lacked the invention to break its opponents down. With one mistake enough to put England into a potentially perilous playoff, though, there remained plenty of tension -- not least on the England bench.
The eruption was that of joy as well as relief then when Gerrard bundled his way past two defenders before poking past Szczesny to ensure that Hodgson realized his first requirement as England coach.