By Mike Collett
Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard scored to send England to the World Cup finals with a 2-0 victory over Poland on Tuesday that gave them top spot in qualifying Group H on a thrilling and nervy night at Wembley.
Rooney’s 41st-minute breakthrough was brilliantly created and executed after a patient England build-up gathered pace when Leighton Baines crossed for the Manchester United striker, who nodded the ball down and wide of keeper Wojciech Szczesny.
The match was played on a knife-edge as anything other than a win would have consigned England to a potentially difficult two-legged playoff tie, with group rivals Ukraine cruising to an easy win over San Marino.
But midfielder Gerrard sparked English celebrations in the 88th minute when he burst into the area, cut inside and poked the ball past Szczesny.
England, unbeaten in their qualifying campaign, finish top of the section with 22 points, with Ukraine, who go into the playoffs, second on 21.
“They had a couple of breaks but we played some great stuff, especially in the first half, and getting that goal gave us the belief and confidence we could go and win it,” Rooney told ITV.
“It was the same as the Montenegro game (on Friday) – a big part of our preparation was to be patient, and we fully deserved to win.
“We’ve always remained positive and had a belief about ourselves and we’ve gone out and shown tonight we are a good team. We have some fantastic young players in the team and some experience with Steve, Frank (Lampard) and myself, so it’s a good blend.”
Gerrard was equally pleased but also sounded a note of caution. “We started really well but the big lesson from tonight, in the second half, is that we have to play better against better teams,” he said.
“But we showed that when it gets tough we don’t concede goals. We know there’s a great togetherness in the squad, we fight for each other and, under tremendous pressure, we’ve shown we can perform.”
The opening 45 minutes were the most exciting of any England international since the new Wembley re-opened seven years ago, with end-to-end action from both sides and Poland posing a consistent counter-attacking threat.
Cheered on by an estimated 20,000 fans who helped create a thrilling atmosphere often lacking when England are at home, the visitors never let England relax and never stopped looking for an equaliser after the break.
Andros Townsend continued where he left off on his debut against Montenegro on Friday, and he had two good scoring chances, one saved by Szczesny and the other smashed against the bar from 25 yards out.
Baines, marauding down the left, produced excellent crosses for Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge before the Everton full-back’s delivery finally paid dividends for Rooney four minutes before half-time.
Poland threatened through Waldemar Sobota and Robert Lewandowski, who seemed set to score after 23 minutes following a swift breakaway before he screwed the ball wide of Joe Hart’s left-hand post.
Kamil Glik almost found an equaliser immediately after the break, which set the tone for the second half – Poland playing with a carefree attitude and causing England problems at the back.
But the home side held out, and the relief of manager Roy Hodgson was clear when Gerrard found the net late on after latching on to a lofted pass from substitute Jack Wilshere.
By Mike Collett