Old heads shine on big occasion as Hodgson’s men seal World Cup place
WORLD CUP QUALIFIER
EVER-DEPENDABLE duo Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard steadied the nerves of a nation with a goal in each half to seal England’s place at next summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
As Ukraine, the only team who could still finish above England in Group H and nab the solitary automatic qualification spot, scored for fun in San Marino it quickly became clear only a win would do for Roy Hodgson’s team.
And a first-half header from Rooney then a typically determined finish from Gerrard with two minutes remaining saw England home.
Hodgson, praised for his bold team selection in Friday’s 4-1 demolition of Montenegro, kept faith with exciting Tottenham winger Andros Townsend on the right-flank but made two changes to his starting line-up.
With Kyle Walker suspended, Chris Smalling came in a right-back, while Michael Carrick was preferred to Frank Lampard in midfield.
England started nervously in front of a sold out Wembley Stadium and allowed Poland striker Robert Lewandowski the freedom to run unchallenged from the half-way line to the edge of the penalty area, before his low shot was comfortably held by goalkeeper Joe Hart.
England’s brightest spark in the first half, Townsend picked up where he left off from Friday’s eye-catching debut and quickly stung the palms of Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny with a powerful right-footed drive.
But it was Poland who looked most threatening and Waldemar Sobota dragged a low shot into the side-netting before Lewandowski found space inside the box but prodded wide across goal from 12 yards.
England finally settled midway through the first half with Townsend their talisman and he was unfortunate not to score his second international goal in five days when a speculative 25-yard curler bounced back off the crossbar.
Daniel Sturridge collected the loose ball but his near-post effort was pushed over the crossbar by Szczesny.
Welbeck should have opened the scoring on the half-hour mark when Leighton Baines’s corner fell into his path, but the Manchester United forward inexplicably missed the target from six yards.
England did deservedly end the half in front though. Baines, a threat on the left-flank throughout, crossed perfectly for Rooney, unmarked, to head into the bottom corner from six yards.
The significant change in mood was shortlived, as Poland’s half-time substitute Mateusz Klich almost immediately gave the vociferous 18,000-plus visiting fans something to really shout about with a shot from just inside the box that was bravely blocked by defender Gary Cahill.
England’s period of nervousness at the start of the second half did not last as long as it did in the first, and soon Cahill and Rooney were raining in efforts on Szczesny’s goal.
The Gunners stopper was proving imperious though, making arguably his best save with 13 minutes remaining to block a venomous angled strike from Sturridge. Hodgson made two substitutions in the final eight minutes, desperate to run the clock down and relieve the ever-growing tension inside Wembley.
But it was captain Gerrard who finally allowed the party to start when he latched onto a pass over the top of the defence from substitute James Milner, bundled his way past covering defender Kamil Glik and stabbed a finish from 12 yards in at the near post, ensuring England’s summer will be spent in South America.
ENGLAND PLAYER RATINGS
Untested until second half when quick off his line to block a goalbound Lewandowski shot
Composed on the ball, reliable at the back. Blocked well from Klich at start of second half
Excellent defensively and a constant threat going forwards. Crossed superbly for Rooney’s goal
An uncharacteristic nervous start soon passed and led by example. Scored England’s second
Not one of his most effective nights in front of goal though runs created space for Baines to exploit
Surprisingly hesitant in front of goal in the first half particularly. Close to scoring late in second half
Often caught out of position with Poland’s best moments coming from their left
Initially struggled with subtle movement of Lewandowski but grew into the game
Disciplined and justified his inclusion ahead of Lampard. Rarely wasted possession
Home side’s most positive player in the first half and hit crossbar. Faded in the second period
Typically energetic performance capped with a goal. Worked tremendously hard in second half
Lampard (for Carrick, 71): Off the pace and booked soon after introduction.
Wilshere (for Sturridge 82): One run forwards but no time to make an impact.
Milner (for Townsend, 86): Excellent pass to set up Gerrard for second goal.