England sign off in style as 2-0 win over Poland books World Cup place in Brazil (From The Northern Echo)
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England sign off in style as 2-0 win over Poland books World Cup place in Brazil
SEALING THE JOB: Captain Steven Gerrard sees his clipped finish beat keeper Szczesny to clinch the 2-0 victory last night
IT was fraught and frantic – but ultimately it was fabulous too.
With a performance every bit as bright and inventive as the one that had brushed aside Montenegro on Friday evening, England signed off in style as they booked a place at next summer's World Cup finals in Brazil.
RELIEF AND CELEBRATION: Wayne Rooney runs away to start the celebrations after his header put England in front at Wembley Stadium last night
Wayne Rooney's first-half header and Steven Gerrard's 88th-minute dribble secured the 2-0 win over Poland that guaranteed top spot in Group H, and while the final outcome might have remained in doubt for much of a nerve-jangling second period, the extent of England's superiority was always clear.
The last two matches have given us a tantalising glimpse of where Roy Hodgson's side have progressed to at the end of a qualifying campaign that sporadically threatened to implode, but which ultimately resulted in the satisfaction of a job well done.
Flawed, undoubtedly, and far from the finished product when posited against some of the sides they could meet in nine months time.
But in a much better shape than they were ahead of last year's European Championships and brimming with the kind of attacking intent and fluidity that has generally been the preserve of England's opponents at major tournaments rather than the team with the Three Lions on its shirt.
Remaining unbeaten throughout a ten-game qualifying campaign is not to be sniffed at, and while leading nations such as Portugal, France, Croatia and Sweden will have to negotiate the play-offs, it is to England's credit that they have topped their pool.
When the pressure was at its most intense in the final home games against Montenegro and Poland, Hodgson's squad delivered, and the emergence of the likes of Andros Townsend, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge has provided a welcome frisson of excitement to counter the lazy stereotype of the England boss as an arch pragmatist.
Any pre-World Cup optimism has to be balanced against the struggles of a campaign that saw England fail to win four of their six matches against Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine, but this is a group of players that is evolving rapidly. Who knows how far they might eventually go?
They accomplished their task with aplomb last night, beating both their opponents and the nagging fear that things were set up to go wrong against Poland once again.
The ghosts of 1973 were present at Wembley, accompanied by the raucous urgings of around 20,000 Poles who helped ensure England's opponents were in no mood to treat their final group game as a dead rubber.
For all that the Football Association cited safety concerns as their reason for doubling the Polish ticket allocation, there is no doubt that the presence of so many away fans made the atmosphere far more intimidating from a home perspective than it should have been. It is a policy that should not be repeated when it comes to other key matches in the future.
An early goal would have been the best way to quieten the massed ranks of Polish supporters of course, but for all that England began brightly, they were unable to fashion a breakthrough until Rooney struck shortly before the break.
Artur Jedrzejczyk almost turned Leighton Baines' eighth-minute cross into his own net under pressure from Welbeck, before Wojciech Szczesny produced the first of a number of fine saves to parry Andros Townsend's low shot from the edge of the area.
KEY MOMENT: Joe Hart manages to block Robert Lewandowski’s effort
As had been the case against Montenegro four days earlier, Baines and Townsend were involved in the majority of England's most effective attacking moves, providing natural width and causing problems whenever they ran at their opponent.
Townsend has been a revelation during his first two appearances in an England shirt, and his bright, fearless approach was almost rewarded midway through the first half. Driving towards the area, he unleashed a superb left-footed effort that cannoned against the crossbar. Welbeck, despite reacting quickest, was unable to manoeuvre his body to convert the rebound.
Welbeck was unfortunate on that occasion, but when another chance presented itself shortly after the half-hour mark, the Manchester United forward was found wanting. The ball dropped invitingly after he won an initial header from Gerrard's corner, but his hurried shot from the edge of the six-yard box was shanked wide.
Nevertheless, with Rooney and Strurridge taking turns to pull wide, there was a fluidity to England's passing play that augured well for an opening goal.
However, the first half also contained a couple of moments that cause palpitations. Hodgson's decision to recall Michael Carrick in place of Frank Lampard was a clear attempt to provide additional cover in front of the back four, but the lack of a natural holding midfielder was all too obvious as Poland's attackers occasionally found themselves in space on the counter-attack.
There were echoes of the 2007 qualifying defeat to Croatia or the 2010 World Cup capitulation at the hands of Germany as England's defence was twice sliced open inside the opening 25 minutes.
The first opportunity was wasted when Waldemar Subota shot into the side netting, but it was the second that should really have resulted in a Polish goal.
The visitors found themselves three-on-two after an English set-piece broke down, but while Sobota's intelligent step-over enabled Robert Lewandowski to latch on to Jakub Blaszczykoswki's through ball, the Borussia Dortmund striker dragged his shot wide.
It was a wasteful miss from one of Europe's leading goalscorers, and its full importance became clear when England finally claimed the lead four minutes before the break.
Another dangerous surge from Baines resulted in a characteristically measured delivery from the left, and Rooney stole ahead of his marker to glance an astute header past Szczesny.
It was the Manchester United striker's ninth goal in his last 13 international appearances, and while a number of his displays for his country have failed to live up to their billing, no one can quibble with his impact in the current round of qualifiers.
England's lead would have been short lived had Gary Cahill not been switched on within a minute of the restart, with the centre-half flinging himself to the floor to block a close-range effort from half-time substitute Mateusz Klich.
Cahill has grown in stature following the retirement of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, and his attacking threat was underlined by the 51st-minute header that Szczesny turned around the post.
To their credit, England were every bit as ambitious in the second half as they had been in the first, and Grzegorz Krychowiak came within inches of turning Rooney's dangerous low cross into his own net before Gerrard rounded off a slick passing move by shooting wide from 20 yards.
There were still scares, and after his continued inclusion had come under increased scrutiny following a poor run of form, Joe Hart raced from his line superbly to smother Lewandowski's effort after the striker broke clear of England's back four.
Szczesny, producing his best Jan Tomaszewski impression, capped a fine night's work by clawing away Rooney's powerful curled strike, but Gerrard made the game safe with two minutes left.
Surging into the penalty area with a powerful dribble, the England skipper lifted a chipped shot into the net.
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