England v Poland
15 Oct 2013 - 8:00 PM
England have confirmed their passage to the 2014 World Cup Brazil after a thrilling, and at some times nail-biting, victory.
Man of the match Wayne Rooney broke the deadlock late on in a first half of countless chances, and Steven Gerrard stole clear in the dying moments to round off a win over a feisty and feverishly supported Poland side.
There was to be no courtesy from the Ukraine, who predictably swept aside San Marino 8-0 in Serravalle, leaving England with no leeway, and for much of the first half a play-off decider looked a very real possibility.
But Rooney, who had dropped his headguard in the build-up, nodded home in the 41st minute and then Gerrard settled fraying nerves with a bustling run and a calm finish past the outstanding Wojciech Szczesny.
And Roy Hodgson, who replaced the suspended Kyle Walker with Chris Smalling and gave Michael Carrick a starting place in midfield in place of Frank Lampard, will have been impressed with his side’s performance in testing and stressful circumstances.
From the outset Poland’s gameplan was clear: setting up a strong barrier in midfield and giving the England midfielders little time to pick their passes. Robert Lewandowski, who lit up Wembley in May when playing for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final, was a reminder of the threat posed by the visitors.
But England started brightly, with Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge combining effectively, while Leighton Baines was given plenty of space to advance from left-back.
Indeed it was Baines who pressed forwards to set up England’s first half-chance, crossing dangerously for Sturridge and leaving Piotr Celeban to clear for a corner, inches clear of his own goal
Then came the Three Lions’s first serious warning: Mierzejweski broke rapidly from an England corner and switched the ball from right to left. Approaching at pace, Grzegorz Krychowiak drilled a low shot which had Joe Hart beaten but fizzed narrowly wide of the far post.
Within seconds England were back at the other end, when the ball fell kindly for Sturridge and the Liverpool striker just failed to get the ball from out under his feet. Then Andros Townsend thumped a shot from the edge of the area and onto the crossbar, and Sturridge forced another save from Szczesny.
By this point Ukraine had scored three times against San Marino, but north-west London was the place for entertainment.
Baines was wreaking havoc with his set-piece delivery, and on the half-hour he picked out Welbeck, who brought the ball down for himself, only to recoil in frustration as his prodded effort drifted wide.
It could have been the most action-packed goalless first-half in Wembley’s long history - but Rooney put paid to that. The striker showed he had a head for occasion when, seconds after losing his protective headband, he stole clear at another Baines cross and nodded powerfully into the far corner for the 38th goal of his England career.
There was still time for Poland to leave England with their hearts in their mouths, as Waldemar Sobota calmly steered past Hart but was denied a goal by an offside flag.
Half-time brought respite but little change in attitude as England attacked from the off. Rooney steered in a dangerous cross from the right-hand side which was redirected across goal by Welbeck, and then Gary Cahill forced Szczesny into a diving save from the following corner.
Poland were proving just as capable of threatening their net as England: Rooney drove forward again and while Kamil Glik was able to cut out the cross, the ball trickled close enough to have half the stadium cheering.
Then for around 15 minutes the excitement that had gripped Wembley made way for tension. Poland probed and pressed England’s centre-backs, Cahill and Phil Jagielka, into some stressful moments, and the chances at the other end began to dry up.
Sturridge came close with a powerful shot through a crowd which left Sczcesny scrambling, and Townsend continued to look lively.
But England’s main concern was with stemming opposition attacks, and substitute Frank Lampard and Rooney both picked up bookings for baulking Poland players.
And if Gerrard’s fatigue-fighting run with two minutes remaining brought the goal that finally settled Wembley’s home support, the memories of a thrilling finale to England’s World Cup qualifying campaign will live long.