ENGLAND 2, POLAND 0
Wayne Rooney and Steve Gerrerd were England’s matchwinners against Poland as they finally booked their place in next summer’s World Cup finals in Brazil.
It was fitting that the Manchester United striker Rooney should have the last word in the qualifying campaign in which he has been a key player throughout.
Rooney’s strike in this decider was his seventh in the six qualifiers in which he has played and spared England the further agony of having to endure a play-off decider had they failed to top Group H.
Until Rooney struck late in the opening half, it looked as though England might endure a night as frustrating as the one on 1973 when their failure to beat Poland at Wembley saw them miss out on a place in the finals of the World Cup.
Forty years ago it was Polish keeper Jan Tomaszewski, the player labelled a clown by the late Brian Clough, who defied England and this time it was Arsenal’s Wojciech Szczesny who stood in the path of England as he produced an equally memorable display of shot stopping.
While England deserved their victory, which was sealed through Gerrard’s late goal, they had to endure a nervy night with Poland a threat throughout on the break. They were clearly lifted by an 18,000 strong following which ensured an electric atmosphere at Wembley.
England manager Roy Hodgson was delighted and relieved having completed the goal of qualifying for the finals.
He said: “I am delighted for the players because these were high-pressure matches, but our performances on Friday and tonight were excellent.
“We had to dig in for a spell in the second half, which we did well, but some of the football we played in the first half was excellent and 1-0 was scant reward.”
Hodgson says it was special taking minnows Switzerland to the finals in 1994 but, as an Englishman, this means a “bit more.”
“We can reflect on 10 matches unbeaten in the qualifying campaign and can be proud of that achievement,” he said.
He added the whole nation will be backing England in Brazil where there will be pressure on them to deliver.
Hodgson believes England has a good blend of experience and youth which will be important in the finals.
Old Trafford pair Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling won call ups as Hodgson made two changes from the side which beat Montenegro on Friday.
Carrick was surprisingly preferred to Frank Lampard in the centre of midfield while the second was enforced as Smalling replaced the suspended Kyle Walker at right back.
Joe Hart was the first keeper to be called into action, but he saved easily from Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski, one of Europe’s top strikers.
Szczesny then made a super stop from Tottenham’s Andros Townsend who almost the breakthrough in the 10th minute with goals in each of in first two internationals.
Poland were a constant threat on the break and Waldemar Sobota was released on the left of the box, but the winger fired into the side netting.
Adrian Mierzejewski then broke on the right and put Lewandowski clean through on the left of the box only for him to fire just wide of the far upright, a massive let off for England as you would have expected him to find the net with such an inviting chance.
The lively Townsend then struck the crossbar with a long-range missile and Daniel Sturridge, following up, saw his effort brilliantly beaten out by Szczesny.
Danny Welbeck then contrived to pull a shot wide from six yards as another gilt-edged chance went begging before Sturridge shot narrowly wide and Rooney forced a full-length save from the Polish keeper.
With England increasingly frustrated as memories of 1973 began to haunt them came the all-important breakthrough in the 41st minute.
Leighton Baines delivered a delightful cross from the left and Rooney, eight yards out, glanced a header low to the left of Szczesny who was finally beaten.
Sobota thought he had equalised just before the break only to be flagged for offside as England weren’t able to relax.
Poland substitute Mateusz Klich had only been on the field for seconds following the restart when he had a goalbound shot blocked by Gary Cahill who at the other end saw his header beaten out by Szczesny.
There was another let off for England when Lewandowski found himself through on goal, but Hart raced from his line to produce a massively important block to preserve England’s lead.
A second goal continued to elude England as Rooney and Sturridge were again thwarted by the Arsenal keeper who was having the game of his life.
The nerves were finally soothed with little over two minutes left when Gerrard sealed victory following a foraging forward run into the box and ending when he chipped the ball over the advancing Szczesny.
There was a huge sigh of relief around Wembley and Hodgson’s celebratory jig was one of delight and relief as England finally knew they were Brazil bound.