England in Good Shape Heading to the World Cup After Beating Poland
So England are there, having booked their place in Brazil after beating Poland 2-0 on Tuesday night. Credit must go to Roy Hodgson, who managed to make the whole experience only a slightly nervy one, rather than the usual mix of the downright excruciatingly painful and the heart-stoppingly gut-wrenching.
Looking back on the qualification process as a whole, if you take individual performances out of the equation, the only genuinely disappointing result was the 1-1 draw at home to Ukraine last September. If England had won that, as they should have done, the whole campaign would have become far easier.
But through they are, and that is all that matters.
Injuries are a Virtue
But England, in very un-England-y fashion, saved their best for last. And Hodgson was helped out greatly by the performances of two players who would not even have started were it not for the injuries to Ashley Cole and Theo Walcott.
Leighton Baines has been knocking at the door for a while now and, following the injury to his fellow left-back, grabbed the opportunity given to him and seized it with aplomb. For the past 10 years it would have taken a very brave England manager to drop Cole, now all of a sudden it will seem extremely bold for Hodgson to put him back in.
Andros Townsend has been somewhat of a revelation for England over the past two games against Poland and Montenegro, and the contrasts between him and Walcott are stark.
While there are plenty of subtle nuances and differences that can be de-constructed and analysed, there is essentially one major difference between the two players: Townsend can run with the ball, Walcott can not.
Hodgson is a manager who craves quick transitions from defence to attack rather than measured passing football, and Townsend played that role to perfection over the past two games, with the most notable example being when he carried the ball 80 yards down the right to help create Rooney's opener against Montenegro.
Walcott is an extremely effective player when used in the right way, but his deficiencies are painfully obvious when exposed.
In England's game away in Ukraine (when it should be remembered that a goalless draw was a decent result considering England were without Rooney, Sturridge and Welbeck), Walcott threatened once early on when put in behind, but he failed to carry the ball successfully time and time again when England were looking to attack.
Townsend and Baines also indirectly complemented each other, with the former hugging the right touchline and stretching the play to allow the latter more space to play in on the left. Welbeck's contribution here should also be credited, he regularly cut inside to drag away the Polish right-back time and time again.
The World Cup is still a long way away, but right now Townsend and Baines have laid down a real marker of their value to the team and given Hodgson a positive selection headache.
Hart is Still No. 1
There was also an extremely good display from Joe Hart in goal, which should help to dispel some of the doubt that has surrounded him in recent times.
He made some good saves when he was called into action and always looked confident with his kicking and handling. Indifferent displays lately have developed that little jolt of fear inside England supporters every time the ball goes near him in a way that it wouldn't have done 12 months ago, but he is still England's best option between the sticks.
It is possible he is benefiting at international level from being pushed by the impressive Fraser Forster in a way that he does not feel threatened for Manchester City.
Chris Smalling looked nervous at right-back, after Kyle Walker foolishly deprived himself of another opportunity to establish himself after getting booked last Friday, so Glen Johnson is still firmly England's best option in that position.
One goal conceded in two crunch games does not make for bad reading for Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, who are now England's premier defensive partnership. But it is arguably now England's most concerning position.
You can't help but feel that the Borussia Dortmund version of Robert Lewandowski would have taken one of his chances last night, and England will get punished against more ruthless opposition.
Neither Cahill or Jagielka would have made it into England's squad at either the 2002 or 2006 World Cups, but they remain solid enough options as England wait on the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Steven Caulker to properly establish themselves.
He has received a fair amount of criticism for his caution and some of his decision-making, but it is worth remembering that Roy Hodgson is still technically unbeaten in competitive games as England manager (England lost to Italy, but it does go down as a draw).
In fact, in 22 games so far, England have only lost to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Caution, in the shape of James Milner, was abandoned when England needed results most, and the Three Lions now head into next summer in very positive circumstances. Right now there is no better man in the country to be leading the nation into Brazil.
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