England book place in Brazil with best display for years
Old stagers Rooney and Gerrard on target as Hodgson's side comes good in thrilling style
England 2 Poland 0. Steven Gerrard sealed England's place in next year's World Cup with a late strike against Poland at Wembley and then dedicated the goal to the fans, telling them: "Book for Brazil."
They will, in their thousands, and all will travel to South America with a little more belief in their boys following the events of the past few days. England haven't just qualified for football's showpiece event, they've done so in style, thrashing Montenegro 4-1 and then playing some of their best football in years to see off the spirited threat of the Poles.
England manager Roy Hodgson has uncovered a gem in Andros Townsend, while Wayne Rooney, who put his side ahead with a sharp header, reminded supporters of his world-class abilities. Yet arguably the most eye-catching performance at Wembley was from left-back Leighton Baines, who not only created Rooney's goal but was a constant menace throughout.
Several times in the opening half hour Baines found space down the left, while Townsend was also creating opportunities out wide on the right. Yet despite all their possession England couldn't find the net, and as the minutes ticked by the tension increased, particularly with the news that second place Ukraine were making mincemeat of San Marini. If England couldn't break down the Poles, who were roared on by over 20,000 fans, then they'd have to try to reach Brazil through the play-offs.
Danny Welbeck missed an absolute sitter, somehow screwing the ball wide from six yards out, while Arsenal's Polish keeper, Wojciech Szczesny, pulled off a series of sharp saves to deny the hosts.
Then four minutes before the interval Baines delivered another inch perfect cross, and this time Rooney made no mistake, sending a powerful glancing header into the far corner.
Poland created a couple of chances of their own on the counter but England deserved their victory, and Gerrard killed off the visitors on 87 minutes with a fine individual effort. Describing the win as a "relief", Gerrard added: "It has been a collective effort over two years. The manager has created a great blend of youth and experience."
Hodgson beamed like a man with the weight of the world no longer on his shoulders at the final whistle, admitting to reporters: "I died a thousand deaths every time Poland crossed the halfway line. I don't think you can help but feel the pressure because we know how important it is to so many people."
Brazil will be Hodgson's second World Cup, having led Switzerland to the 1994 tournament in the USA, but that will pale into insignificance compared to next year.
"To go to a World Cup in 1994... with Switzerland was pretty good," he said. "But I'm English. As an Englishman, it means a little bit more to you."
Hodgson's next job is to ensure England don't go to Brazil just to make up the numbers. After a slow start to their qualification campaign, the Three Lions have come good in the last two games, playing with a pace and panache missing from earlier encounters.
Not so long ago, even incoming FA chairman Greg Dyke wrote them off as no-hopers but as Hodgson said on Tuesday evening: "You've always got a chance. It is the old thing about if you want to win the lottery you have to buy a lottery ticket. We have got our ticket so that in itself is good." ·