Late goals in either half from Wayne Rooney and skipper Steven Gerrard sent England to the World Cup finals as they laid to rest 40-year-old ghosts against Poland.
Roy Hodgson made two changes from the 4-1 win over Montenegro on Friday, one enforced and another to shore up midfield. Chris Smalling played right back with Kyle Walker suspended and Michael Carrick replaced Frank Lampard.
Poland coach Waldemar Fornalik meanwhile named a team with three alterations from the defeat in Ukraine. Piotr Celeban deputised in defence for the banned Lukasz Szukala.
Adrian Mierzejewski, a more experienced advanced midfield option, took over from Mateusz Klich. Lastly Southampton keeper Artur Boruc lost his place between the sticks to Arsenal number one Wojciech Szczesny.
England went for broke after a cagey opening ten minutes. The hosts had to be alert to Polish counters with danger man Robert Lewandowski drawing a save from Joe Hart. Waldemar Sobota later shot into the side-netting.
Andros Townsend meanwhile wriggled free of defensive attention and forced a parrying stop from Szczesny. Danny Welbeck, off balance, turned the rebound wide. Gerrard then whipped a free kick from the left into the box, but it evaded everyone.
Lewandowski dragged Poland’s best first half chance wide as the visitors broke from a Lions corner. Borussia Dortmund teammate Jakub Blaszczykowski dummied a crossfield pass to him, but Hart had nothing to do.
Tottenham Hotspur winger Townsend then rattled the bar with another rasping strike. Szczesny kept Daniel Sturridge’s effort on the rebound out. England were hammering on the Polish door.
Welbeck somehow stabbed wide next from close range following a corner. The Manchester United forward then saw his touch desert him with another clear sight of goal.
Rooney brought another save from Szczesny, who threw a low, scooping palm to his right and kept out England’s talisman. Hodgson and home fans finally had the breakthrough, however, five minutes before the break.
Poland’s defence gave out as a near post Welbeck run distracted them and Baines put a left-wing cross on the head of Rooney. Szczesny had no chance as Rooney nodded the ball across him into the bottom corner.
Sturridge saw a stooping set piece header bounce into the ground. Sobota then had the ball in the net at the other end on the stroke of half time, but was narrowly offside. Replays confirmed the raised flag was right.
Fornalik sent Klich on for the second half as the visitors increased their attacking midfield presence. Aside from an early glimmer, however, the pattern of play remained the same. Szczesny parried away a Gary Cahill header from a corner.
Grzegorz Krychowiak then almost slid the ball into his own net, but Poland survived. Wembley was being treated to an unusual phenomenon, an FA Cup tie tempo of cut and thurst from the Lions.
Lewandowski retained a menacing presence and was in behind the home defence after a well-timed run. Hart, the subject of such widespread recent criticism, stayed on his feet and the striker, because of a poor touch, could not take the ball past him.
Szczesny then flew to his left, denying Rooney again and keeping England’s lead at just one. Hodgson then freshened up midfield by introducing Lampard and Jack Wilshere. Sturridge also saw a thumping strike tipped over by the Poland goalie after Cahill bravely won the ball from him.
All the palpable tension around Wembley was released two minutes from time when Gerrard rolled back the years. He raced forward when released by Lampard, held off defenders and lobbed just over Szczesny to seal the Lions’ place at the World Cup finals.
Few are tipping England to make an impact in Brazil, but their presence there, however long it lasts, gives supporters something to look forward to next summer.
- England: 1 Joe Hart, 2 Chris Smalling, 5 Gary Cahill, 6 Phil Jagielka, 3 Leighton Baines, 4 Steven Gerrard (c), 8 Michael Carrick (16 Frank Lampard 71’), 7 Andros Townsend (17 James Milner 86’), 10 Wayne Rooney, 11 Danny Welbeck, 9 Daniel Sturridge (15 Jack Wilshere 82’) 4-2-3-1
- Goals: Wayne Rooney 41’, Steven Gerrard 88’
- Poland: 12 Wojciech Szczesny, 19 Piotr Celeban, 3 Artur Jedrzejczyk, 15 Kamil Glik, 2 Grzegorz Wojtkowiak, 6 Mariusz Lewandowski (11 Mateusz Kich 46’), 8 Grzegorz Krychowiak, 16 Jakub Blaszczykowski (c), 18 Adrian Mierzejewski (10 Piotr Zielinski 75’), 5 Waldemar Sobota (17 Slawomir Peszko 65’), 9 Robert Lewandowski 4-2-3-1