LONDON — There were scares—this is England; of course there were scares—but on Tuesday, England duly went out and grabbed the prize that was on offer, a place at the 2014 World Cup.
A 2-0 win never felt comfortable but was certainly warranted by the manner of the performance, the Three Lions looking uncharacteristically inventive and incisive in attack for a second game in five days as they defeated Poland at Wembley.
Wayne Rooney decided to go without his protective headband for five minutes towards the end of the first half and in that time scored the all-important goal, rising at the far post to head Leighton Baines’ pinpoint cross into the bottom corner.
Then, with five arduous minutes remaining, Steven Gerrard seemed to summon his last burst of energy to stumble into the box and flick a stretching effort over the goalkeeper; eventually, belatedly, sending England to the World Cup.
After Friday’s 4-1 win over Montenegro Roy Hodgson promised that his players were aware that it was only a “job half done” and, with the relative safety net of a playoff awaiting anything less than a win, attacked with purpose almost from the off.
After getting a lucky break when Robert Lewandowski—whose presence on the opposite side may have seen the scoreline somewhat more emphatic—slid wide when clean through on goal with the scoreline still 0-0, England grew in stature and dominated the contest.
Andros Townsend rattled the crossbar with a brilliant curling effort, while the two Daniels, Sturridge and Welbeck, both saw good opportunities fended off by the overworked Wojciech Szczesny.
It was the most unimpressive of England’s attackers who broke the deadlock, however. Rooney had seen little of the ball before his crucial intervention—anticipating another perfect Baines cross (it was about the fourth of the Everton left back’s night) to glance it home.
With the lead established, England bounced off at halftime.
On Friday, the Three Lions had emerged after halftime with a renewed purpose, scoring the first goal of the games just three minutes after the restart. On this occasion, however, it was Poland—perhaps inspired by the officially reported 18,000 (although it felt more like 30,000 inside the stadium) fans there to support them—who started stronger, building on one of the last acts of the first half that saw Waldemar Sobota have a goal disallowed (correctly) for offside.
Poland probed but the under-pressure Joe Hart dealt with whatever came his way, highlighted by a fine save to deny Lewandowski as the Borussia Dortmund player tried to lift it over him.
Then, play was stopped by a pitch invader emanating from the Poland end; a delay that seemed to do more to upset the visitors than inspire them.
England grew in confidence; Gary Cahill being denied from a corner by Szczesny, before the Arsenal man did the same with a Rooney effort from range.
Hodgson responded by withdrawing Michael Carrick—England’s leader in both passes made and completion percentage—for Frank Lampard, a questionable move, especially when Lampard’s first real involvement minutes later saw him booked for a needless foul on Poland’s own substitute, Slawomir Peszko.
England needed a second goal to ease the nerves, but Szczesny continued to impress—denying Sturridge after another rasping effort. As it was, every Poland counterattack seemed extra-threatening; Rooney following Lampard into the referee’s notebook with a particularly agricultural challenge to end one such move.
When Sturridge was withdrawn for Jack Wilshere with 10 minutes remaining, Hodgson’s plan became clear—try to retain possession, preserving the slender advantage rather than looking to double it.
It was a plan fraught with risk but perhaps the only one available to him, as almost all England’s attack-minded players looked fatigued after nearly 180 minutes of high-stakes football.
Even Townsend, England’s wild card against Montenegro, declined opportunities to run at his opposition man, making it unsurprising when he was the final man sacrificed, for the oft-maligned James Milner.
With no one else stepping up to protect England’s fans from having to squirm through a nervous final few minutes, captain Steven Gerrard decided to do it himself. Bursting through the defence, Gerrard lifted the ball over the onrushing Szczesny to seal a 2-0 win—and send England to Brazil.
Two must-win games. Two wins. England are going to the party, and Hodgson now has eight months to plan for it.