What: England vs. Poland, World Cup 2014 qualifier
When: Tuesday, October 15th, 2013, 8 p.m. BST (3 p.m. EDT)
Where: Wembley Stadium, London
After nine occasionally fraught, often mundane qualification matches it all comes down to the 10th and last—with England knowing only a win against Poland on Tuesday is guaranteed to send them to next summer’s World Cup.
Back during the qualification process for the 2010 tournament, Fabio Capello could afford a loss in England’s penultimate match and still make it to the promised land, having won all nine of the other games in the group.
Alas, after four draws this time around Roy Hodgson knows he is afforded no such luxury—a first defeat almost certainly sending the Three Lions to the unpredictable purgatory of the play-offs.
That is assuming Ukraine, one point behind, defeat San Marino in their final game—but with San Marino having lost all nine of their other encounters by an average margin of five goals, that is not much of an assumption to make.
Much has been made of who England could face should they be forced into such a two-legged affair—France appearing one likely option—but Hodgson will not be devoting much thought to that.
Just win on Tuesday, and all else is irrelevant.
A Job Half Done
England got the result they needed in the first half of this international break, defeating Montenegro 4-1 at Wembley, but Poland did not—a narrow defeat to Ukraine ending their slim World Cup qualification hopes.
While that means they have nothing tangible to play for on Tuesday, they will still come eager to impress—with 18,000 Polish fans expected to form the largest away support Wembley has seen in many years.
Proud of the Indy's brilliant sport front cover today. What exactly is international football meant to be about? pic.twitter.com/mODMayIziB— Jack Pitt-Brooke (@JackPittBrooke) October 14, 2013
Poland also have a proud history of scuppering English plans, drawing with England in similar circumstances back in 1973 to force the Three Lions to miss the 1974 World Cup.
“I can't imagine they will take their foot off the pedal,” Hodgson said on Friday, as reported by ITV.com. “They will want to come here and get another good result just like Poland did in 1973. We are going to be preparing for the very best Poland can be.
“If we are lucky and they decide not to turn up and allow us to stroll through them, so be it. But I am not expecting it.”
Poland’s danger man is Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski, who has expressed a desire for his side to produce a big performance, both for themselves and for the many Polish fans who will be in attendance.
“We won’t be favourites and we don’t stand a chance of going through, but we want to go to Wembley and at least allow our supporters a little fun,” Lewandowski said, speaking to the Daily Telegraph.
“I don’t know why we have good players at top clubs, but we don’t have a team who can play ruthless football and kill teams off.”
Robert Lewandowski’s club teammate, Jakub Blaszczykowski, is another of Poland’s better players, although the absence of a third Dortmund employee, Lukasz Piszczek, should be a relief for England.
At goalkeeper is where England fans might be most familiar with Poland’s options, with all three players plying their trade in the Premier League.
Arsenal duo Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski are both in the squad, but it is currently Southampton’s Artur Boruc who possesses the No. 1 spot, and he will be looking to emulate Jan Tomaszewski—the “clown,” as Brian Clough dubbed him, who denied England in 1973—by frustrating England.
“We are still talking about that [Tomaszewski’s performance] in Poland, and I’m hoping to do the same kind of thing,” Boruc told the Daily Mail at the weekend. “I know it’s not the same, because this time we can’t qualify. But at the very least, if I’m playing in that game I want to stop England.”
Tomaszewski is not convinced, however, believing Boruc’s defence is not up to the challenge of protecting him from the likes of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck.
“Artur is one of the best keepers in the world," said Tomaszewski to the BBC. "But can he stop England on his own? No.
"I made mistakes in 1973, but my teammates saved us. Our defence isn't so good now. Artur must rely on himself."
A Lot at Stake
Not only is World Cup qualification on the agenda, so is England’s short-term fixture list. Involvement in a play-off scuppers provisional plans in place for November friendlies against Argentina and Germany, per the Daily Telegraph, two illustrious meetings that will add to the Football Association’s 150-year celebrations.
Similarly, failing to book a World Cup berth delays England’s options of booking a preferential World Cup base in Brazil, a potentially significant element to any finals campaign.
Last Time They Met
In the first meeting between the two sides of this qualification process, a late header from Kamil Glik earned Poland a deserved point in a game that was delayed for 24 hours due to heavy rain.
Joe Hart’s inability to come and connect with a Poland corner allowed Glik to score after Rooney had notched in the first half. Jermain Defoe, who started the match, and Rooney were guilty of wasting other good openings.
"It's my fault,” Hart said afterwards. “I should have punched it or stayed in goal. I didn't do either and it cost us."
How They Will Line Up
The continued absence of Ashley Cole with a rib injury means Leighton Baines will continue at left-back, absolving Hodgson of one particular headache.
The other surrounds whether to stick with Andros Townsend, attempting to repeat the welcome response his selection brought on Friday. Hodgson professed himself extremely impressed with the Spurs winger’s performance, but the attacking presence of Blaszczykowski on Poland’s right wing might tempt Hodgson to play Milner—who he nearly picked over Townsend on Friday—as a more defensively disciplined option.
Milner’s presence would require one of Townsend and Welbeck to be dropped, but the Manchester United striker has been a favourite of Hodgson’s since his appointment, making the new boy the more likely to be sacrificed.
Then again, it is a win England really need, meaning the mindset remains similar to the Montenegro game, and thus the team is likely to remain similar.
In all likelihood the only change will be at right-back, where the suspended Kyle Walker is replaced by Phil Jones.
Poland (4-2-3-1): Artur Boruc; Grzegorz Wojtkowiak, Kamil Glik, Lukasz Szukala, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Waldemar Sobota, Mariusz Lewandowski; Mateusz Klich, Gregorz Krychowiak, Jakub Blaszczykowski; Robert Lewandowski.
Poland in many ways are a similar outfit to Montenegro; blessed with some talented players but clearly deficient in some areas of their XI and lacking in real depth. England will see their defence as a unit that can be easily breached, although Robert Lewandowski will be encouraged by the fact England’s defence was also unable to keep a clean sheet on Friday.
Amid a boisterous atmosphere at Wembley, expect England’s wealth of attacking options to eventually break down Poland’s resistance, although maybe not without some fraught moments.
As Robert Lewandowski noted: “In qualification, victories and points are the most important things, not the style of play.”
At no point will that be in sharper focus than on Tuesday.
Predicted score: England 2-0 Poland.