Tuesday night saw thousands of England supporters tune in to one of the country’s most important international games of the year. After a convincing 4-1 win at Wembley against Montenegro, England received fair praise from plaudits and critics alike, however the job was far from completed. A win was a vital for the Three Lions, and it was going to come with exuberant hard work and determination from England’s part and of course Roy Hodgson, whose job was surely on the line after England’s qualification hopes were boiled down to the final game.
The out-of-form Hart maintained his place in the starting line-up, playing behind the center-back pairing of Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka, sided by Leighton Baines and Chris Smalling, who replaced the suspended Kyle Walker. Carrick and Gerrard were played deep in midfield behind the attacking trio of Welbeck, Rooney and Townsend, and ahead of them the vastly in-form Daniel Sturridge was chosen, quite unsurprisingly.
Poland came out fighting fiercely during the opening stages, forcing a deep two line of four from England whenever the Poles possession progressed into the final third. England recuperated quickly after regaining possession and were quite effective in transitions, with Welbeck often drifting in centrally, pulling the right-backs out of position and occupying the central defenders. This saw space being vastly exploited on the left wing from Baines, who regularly pushed forward and hugged the touchline.
This trained and often repeated maneuver seen England take a deserved lead in the 42nd minute after Rooney sent in a glancing header from Baines’ beautifully weighted cross. He did so with his forehead unadorned by the headband accessory protecting his scar, having briefly discarded it. This was business time for England, and they rose to the occasion.
For a team that began the night fourth in a very average qualifying group, Poland moved the ball around with fantastic purpose. The prime example of this movement was on the 23′ when they broke the length of the pitch from an England corner, eventually playing Robert Lewandowski into that troublesome left channel where his left foot shot across Joe Hart was just wide of the goalkeeper’s far post.
These were tense times, indeed. In midfield, Michael Carrick, picked ahead of Frank Lampard, found himself closed down in those early stages, with Poland fielding a two man press and pushing England to the flanks by flooding midfield whenever the ball was lost with the thinking that England would be nowhere near as effective on the flanks. However, Carrick being Carrick, he can still pass the ball beautifully through the briefing shifting spaces of a modern game, but the United midfielder had to be at his pure best in order to do so.
After some worrying counterattacks that left England horribly exposed when committing players forward, Wayne Rooney’s goal was a huge morale boost to the side and fans alike, but at half time issues needed to be addressed by Hodgson. Baines’ aggressive movements down the left flank saw England be dangerously vulnerable to Poland counterattacks, as the lack of legs in midfield saw Lewandoski narrowly miss the post after escaping Smalling’s attempts to shackle the Dortmund strikers’ movements.
Townsend’s defensive contribution on the right was also admirable too, as often the Spurs man would be seen tracking back in defensive transitions and assist Smalling in 2v1 situations. He was also astoundingly effective going forward too, testing Szczęsny after a fantastic run saw him wrap his foot entirely around the ball, narrowly missing the top corner and ricocheting off the bar.
It was far from pretty during the second half, after Ukraine unsurprisingly clutching the victory leaving England with the task of a must-win situation, with 3 points against Poland being the only option to guarantee qualification. Poland played with sheer pride, even as if they had a World Cup place up for grabs, but a performance like that for a team ranked 65th in the world was remarkable. After the second half began, England began to sit far deeper than usual, neutralizing Poland’s counterattacking threat by switching to a 4-4-2 looking side whenever without possession, with Rooney dropping quite deep to keep tabs on the lively and vibrant Lewandoski, who was surprisingly missing a number of chances on the night.
Poland showed fear when England recycled possession at times, as they accumulated numbers on Polands right flank, which utilised Baines brilliantly to provide game-changing crosses into the box and cause sheer havoc among the Poles. Eventually Wilshere and Milner were brought on to suit the 4-4-2 when out of possession, with Milner providing much needed defensive aid for Smalling when Townsend lacked the stamina to do so in the late stages, and Wilshere’s active pressing provided much needed energy to the side in the late stages. With two minutes left in stoppage time, Gerrard stormed his way past the fatigued Poland defense, and with he ball set up for him, he stretched to poked it past Szczesny. The challenging task had been done completed, and a major test of character had been passed by Hodgson and his players.