Harry Maguire swung a boot and made a connection of such timely sweetness, Harry Kane could only look on in admiration and get the hell out of the way as it flew past his shoulder and on to goal.
With five minutes to go, that was enough. Yet England got away with one here. Yes, this was a win as expected, and it was deserved on the balance of play. Yet England put the perfect start to their World Cup qualifying campaign at risk with poor defending at home versus a Robert Lewandowski-less Poland.
Who wasn’t rubbing their hands when it was announced the best striker in Europe had gone lame against Andorra? Gareth Southgate has had some very good breaks as England manager, and here was another. The failure to take advantage of it would have been greatly disappointing and England almost let it slip.
Harry Maguire celebrates scoring a late winner to help England overcome Poland in their 2022 World Cup qualifier
The Three Lions defender thumped home the winning goal with five minutes left on the clock to win it on Wednesday
The emphatic finish was too much for Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (centre right), who could only get a hand to it
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
ENGLAND: (4-3-3) Pope 6; Walker 6.5, Maguire 7, Stones 6, Chilwell 6.5; Phillips 6.5, Rice 7.5, Foden 6.5 (James 86); Mount 7, Kane 6.5 (Calvert-Lewin 89), Sterling 7.5 (Lingard 90)
SUBS NOT USED: Johnstone (GK), Henderson (GK); Mings, Dier, Shaw, Coady, Watkins, Trippier, Bellingham
GOALS: Kane (PEN 19), Maguire (85)
COACH: Gareth Southgate 7
POLAND: (3-4-3) Szczesny 6.5; Bednarek 7, Glik 7, Helik 6.5 (Jozwiak 55, 6.5); Bereszynski 6.5, Krychowiak 7, Moder 7, Rybus 6.5 (Reca 86); Swiderski 6 (Milik 46, 6,5 booked), Piatek 6.5 (Augustyniak 77), Zielinski 6 (Grosicki 86)
SUBS NOT USED: Fabianski (GK), Niemczycki (GK); Szymanski, Dawidowicz, Placheta, Kowalczyk, Kozlowski
GOALS: Moder (58)
BOOKINGS: Milik (46)
COACH: Paulo Sousa 6.5
REFEREE: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland)
MAN OF THE MATCH: Raheem Sterling (England)
VENUE: Wembley Stadium
Ratings done by Sami Mokbel
No wonder the coaches were punching the air when a well-rehearsed handiness from set pieces paid dividends once again. Phil Foden curled in a corner which his Manchester City team-mate John Stones kept in with a header at the back post. It picked out Maguire, unmarked, and his first time finish did the rest. But it was perilously close.
England’s qualifying record across the two major tournaments is impressive. This was the 20th home win, of 29 unbeaten. Poland as a bogey team is also something of a myth with 12 wins and seven draws in 20 meetings. Next time these teams meet, however, Lewandowski may be fit, and who knows how that encounter will play out given the bother the likes of Jakub Moder, of Brighton, caused Stones?
He has been in outstanding form for Manchester City this season, but here was one of those games that reminded why he had to fight to get back into that team. Slack for the goal, Stones’ performance was not aided by goalkeeper Nick Pope, who was as unconvincing here as he had been faultless in two games in which he had barely anything to do.
It was a good night in terms of the result and three wins from three cannot be faulted as the start of a World Cup qualification campaign, but questions remain – not least in the way England continue to set up against any team that poses even a modicum of threat.
There had been much talk about the personnel Gareth Southgate would use to approach this tie – the biggest test of this three-game international break – but in reality an absence on the Polish side was more decisive than any of England’s permutations. No Lewandowski, should have spelled no problem. Indeed, that was the bottom line, for much of this match. Certainly the first-half, when Poland’s best opportunity came from a pass by goalkeeper Pope, lashed at Stones, who had no chance of controlling it cleanly.
The ball spun off him – in Stones’ defence, Diego Maradona would have struggled to kill it in one touch – but fortunately out of harm’s way. Pope has been on an encouraging run of clean sheets since his England debut, but even Jordan Pickford’s biggest detractors would have to admit his distribution is a significant upgrade. That is certainly one of the qualities Southgate recognises in him. In the second-half Pope got in another dreadful pickle with Stones, which ended with him on the floor contesting a loose ball with Poland’s Krzysztof Platek, referee Bjorn Kuipers generously finding in the goalkeeper’s favour. Soon after, the Dutchman was on England’s side again, when the ball struck Maguire’s hand, under pressure from Platek once more.
England got off to a promising start after Raheem Sterling was brought down inside the box on the 20-minute mark
England skipper Harry Kane stepped up to calmly convert the penalty and give Gareth Southgate’s side a first-half lead
Kane went straight down the middle with his spot-kick, with Szczesny incorrectly diving to his right
Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal and becoming England’s highest scorer from the penalty spot
These moment of skittishness aside, however, Poland were disappointing until their goal. They had one truly dismal free-kick and a whole lot of nothing, minus their cutting-edge striker. It took England’s defensive fallibility to get them back into the game. And that is a worry, with much better teams lying in wait this summer.
Pope played the ball to Stones, who took a casual, sloppy touch that seemed to presume no Polish players would bother pressing him. Wrong. Moder was on him, stealing the ball on the edge of the area and passing to substitute Arkadiusz Milik. Moder got it straight back and smashed it past Pope, the first goal he has conceded as an international footballer, but not the last unless his defenders start concentrating.
Until that point, England controlled the game but if Southgate had to frequently encourage them to advance with greater intent, he may need to look closer to home for the solution. He spoke before the game of the need to strike a balance between attack and defence and cited Terry Venables as his influence in that area. Yet Venables had no more than four defensive players even against the best teams at Euro 96 – and deployed Paul Ince as his holding midfielder, having dropped him from the team to curb his more cavalier instincts. By contrast, Southgate went with six defence-minded players against a very limited Polish side, given neither Declan Rice nor Kalvin Phillips are famed for getting forward.
It was no surprise, then, that on occasions Southgate could be seen encouraging his men to play higher. In the eighth minute, Ben Chilwell got down the left and put in a cross that Foden couldn’t quite get over to direct towards goal, but the attacking impetus drifted for long spells. England’s goal was a penalty and one shot on target of real note after it was a poor return given the gulf between these teams.
The Tottenham talisman is congratulated by Phil Foden (centre) and Sterling (right) after scoring from the spot
However, Poland were gifted a goal following a John Stones blunder, with Jakub Moder scoring the equaliser for the visitors
Stones was caught on the ball outside his own area, which Moder (left) did well to capitalise on before scoring
After poking the ball free from Stones, Moder received the ball back before firing a shot past a helpless Nick Pope
How to put that in context? Well, the player who gave away the penalty for Poland plays for Barnsley. Nothing against Barnsley, of course. John Stones played for Barnsley and it didn’t do him any harm. But he didn’t play for England while he was at Oakwell. The last player to represent England while with Barnsley was George Utley, in 1913. He is also the only one.
And it was a Barnsley tackle that handed England their lead. Raheem Sterling was going nowhere, almost running the ball out, when Michal Helik made his challenge and caught him with a trailing leg. Sterling accepted the gift, gratefully, and made sure referee Kuipers knew about it, too. Kane did the rest, straight down the middle from the spot, overtaking Frank Lampard as England’s leading penalty taker in the process, with 10.
He could have had a second, this time from open play, when teed up by Foden after 31 minutes, but goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was equal to it. Sterling was the main threat, that apart, with a couple of excellent jinking runs and some good combinations with Chelsea duo Chilwell and Mason Mount. He should have done better, too, on the counter with Foden, but Sterling’s final ball was poor and Foden’s run could have been smarter. It was one of those rare occasions when his lack of experience showed.
Stones (left) cuts a dejected figure after being caught on the ball and for being at fault for Poland’s equaliser
Kane dives in for a 50/50 challenge with former Arsenal keeper Szczesny as England pressed high throughout the 90 minutes
England boss Southgate (right) congratulates his captain for another solid performance after a third successive victory
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