With the pressure turned up to the max, Roy Hodgson’s England duly delivered and successfully secured their spot at next year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Having overcome the challenge of Montenegro on Friday, England’s final task of their Group H qualifying campaign came in the form of Poland. With 18,000 away fans in attendance it was never going to be easy but The Three Lions rose to the task, much to this displeasure of those critics that would have loved to see them fail.
On the night it was a hard fought affair and Poland could, and probably should, have taken the lead in a first-half void of many real opportunities. Just as it looked like the sides would head into the interval level pegging, the deadlock was broken. Cometh the hour, cometh the man as Wayne Rooney once again opened the scoring just minutes before the break. It was Leighton Baines’ superb cross that provided the assist as England’s talisman headed in and the Everton left-back must now surely be ahead of Ashley Cole in Hodgson’s pecking order.
A tentative second-half followed and although England never really looked in danger of conceding it was apparent to everyone inside Wembley Stadium that a single error could condemn the side to a playoff spot. Elsewhere Ukraine were beating San Marino 8-0 so only a win would do. Then, during the closing minutes, captain Steven Gerrard broke into the Polish box and slotted in the goal that cemented the team’s place in Brazil. Bedlam in the stands, euphoria in the dugout.
It’s been a stuttering campaign for England and prior to this final double-header the team had only registered victories against the minnows of San Marino and Moldova. However, with these two wins, the final standings look far more pleasing as not only have The Three Lions qualified but they’ve done it by staying undefeated; in a group that contained trips to Kiev, Warsaw and Podgorica, that is one very good achievement.
Hodgson has come under huge public criticism throughout the campaign but he has answered those questions emphatically. The gaffer has now taken charge of 14 competitive games and England are yet to be defeated (aside from a penalty shootout) and that alone tells a story that perhaps the condemnations of his management skills were unjust.
England will be an outside shot to lift the trophy in Rio next July but nonetheless the squad should be confident as they begin preparations for the tournament. On their day they can match any side in the world and, although chances of winning the entire competition are slim, there is no reason to fear any other team. If The Three Lions perform to their potential, a ¼ final place is definitely within their reach. In my opinion, that would signal a successful campaign.
It’s the last chance for the likes of Gerrard and Lampard to impress on the grandest stage of all and this once ‘golden generation’ will want to prove once and for all that they are deserving of being mentioned as two of the game’s greatest ever players. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney, will be desperate to finally score at a World Cup and shake off that unwanted tag of never netting at the highest level despite being England’s most prolific competitive striker.
Will England win the World Cup? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter, it won’t stop the country getting into the carnival atmosphere regardless. Bring it on!
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