Gerrard’s late goal settles England’s growing nerves and seals place at World Cup finals
Hodgson instructed team to play it safe and protect Rooney’s first-half goal
England’s Wayne Rooney scores England’s first-half goal as Danny Welbeck follows the ball during their World Cup qualifying match against Poland at Wembley. Photograph: PA
England 2 Poland 0: There was a moment here, as the pressure was straying dangerously close towards intolerable, when Roy Hodgson could be seen yanking at his tie, desperately trying to loosen the knot a little. It was that kind of night, full of anxiety and drama until, finally, that moment when all the pent-up emotion could be released.
It came courtesy of Steven Gerrard’s outstretched right boot, turning in the goal that removed any doubt with only two minutes of normal time to go. That was the moment England knew their block-booking at the five-star hotel in Rio next June was safe and they could start to relax. Roy Hodgson’s team had been toying with everyone’s nerves before that point, with England’s manager unashamedly instructing his team to play it safe and protect Wayne Rooney’s first-half goal.
Gerrard had other things in mind, surging into the penalty area with typical determination, and there were scenes of great jubilation at the end.
England have made heavy going of Group H but they have handled the pressures of their last two games admirably and had to hold off spirited opponents to make it over the line.
Officially, Poland are languishing 65th in Fifa’s rankings, two places below Scotland. Yet it quickly became apparent, just as England had feared, that this was a team that were willing to give everything. Waldemar Fornalik’s side had the phenomenal backing of their raucous, fire-cracking supporters. At times it felt more like Warsaw than Wembley and, certainly at the start, it seemed as though Poland might play above themselves as a direct result.
The updates from Serravalle informed us that Ukraine were on their way to racking up the obligatory win against San Marino. England had known they would almost certainly have to win and, for long spells, the tension was considerable.
Poland had started the match with great energy, quick to the ball, strong in the challenge, and projecting the clear sense that they had absolutely no intention whatsoever of making this a straightforward night. Yet, once they had shaken their heads clear, Hodgson’s men had enough of the ball in dangerous areas to feel they should have soothed their own nerves before Rooney’s goal.
Andros Townsend, playing again as though immune to any form of nerves, had bounced a lovely, left-footed curler against the crossbar. Daniel Welbeck had slashed a left-foot shot wide from a position when he really should have done better and there were all kinds of other half-chances.
England were subjecting their opponents to some ferocious pressure, yet there always seemed to be a Polish defender who was willing to throw himself in front of the ball or extend a limb to block one of the shots on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
Rooney’s goal certainly came at a good time. Poland had started to defend too deeply and Leighton Baines’s cross from the left was whipped in with a combination of pace and accuracy. Welbeck could not reach it but Rooney was directly behind him, flashing his header past Szczesny.
There is no doubt England, on the balance of play, deserved to lead but Poland could also look back on more than one moment in the opening 45 minutes when the entire complexion of the night could conceivably have changed.
There were more anxious moments to come after the break. Mateusz Klich, a half-time substitute, almost equalised with his first touch, courtesy of a deflection off Gary Cahill. Hart had to dash from his goal-line to thwart Lewandowski and, around the hour mark, England were starting to look edgy again. They desperately wanted a second goal.
Szczesny saved well from Rooney, and then from Daniel Sturridge, but Poland kept coming back at them. Hodgson brought on Frank Lampard for Michael Carrick and Jack Wilshere for Sturridge, trying to get a better form of control in midfield. Soon afterwards James Milner came on for Townsend and it was clear the plan was to start playing safe.
Finally, Gerrard broke away, evaded two opponents and scored the goal that decided everything.