Hot on the heels of a 5-0 victory over San Marino at Wembley, England are in Warsaw today to continue their FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifying quest against Poland. Tonight’s opposition have caused qualifying problems for England before, but since hosting UEFA Euro 2012 and impressing in patches, Poland have undergone a difficult period.
For England, this is the business end of an international break that will only be seen as a success if the team leaves Poland with a victory. While I disagreed with the level of criticism that met England’s win on Friday, it is certainly true that three of the six points available in this round of qualifying matches were safe before kick-off at Wembley. Tonight is the true test.
England lead Group H after three matches, having racked up seven points from the matches against Moldova, Ukraine and San Marino. Second-placed Montenegro are three points behind and play Moldova tonight, and Poland are in third with four points. Such are the margins that England could be level on points with both this time tomorrow, or they could be six points clear of Poland. Ukraine, by virtue of their draw in Chisinau on Friday, are already off the pace.
Chelsea players Frank Lampard and Ryan Bertrand, both retained in the squad despite being ruled out of the San Marino game through injury and illness respectively, were quickly announced as absentees for Poland over the weekend.
Bertrand’s problems bizarrely resulted in his decision to “leave” Twitter. He was understandably upset that his withdrawal from the squad was reported as being because of a sore throat, and the reaction to his inclusion of a swearword in a tweet has been baffling. To equate Bertrand’s use the ‘F’ word to punctuate a sentence – which, while not big or clever, is something I do a lot – to Ashley Cole’s ill-advised #TWUNCHOFBATS attack on the Football Association is as stupid as the tweet that started it off.
England will be making changes from the line-up that faced San Marino, one of them enforced. Theo Walcott was the unfortunate recipient of a quite unacceptable challenge by goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini on Friday and has been made unavailable due to the chest injury sustained in the incident, which inexplicably didn’t result in an England penalty and could easily have seen Simoncini given his marching orders.
England will not have to deal with all three components of Poland’s excellent Borussia Dortmund trio. Lukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski are both on duty but the Polish captain and talismanic BVB midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski is out for six weeks with an ankle injury. You can find out more about Poland’s prospects in Warsaw this evening by reading Ryan Hubbard’s preview.
Hodgson isn’t keen to recognise tonight’s match as a more significant one than any other, but he has spoken this week about the additional challenge of being England:
“We’ll face a very highly motivated team with a very vocal support because we are a scalp. England have always been a scalp. Poland will be rubbing their hands with glee. This is a game that, if they can win it, is a feather in their cap. We have to make sure we’re not the victims.”
Defender Phil Jagielka, meanwhile, has welcomed renewed competition at centre back in the absence of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, both now retired even if only one of them has admitted it:
“I wouldn’t say I resigned myself to not starting but that’s the role you get put into when there are people in front of you who aren’t particularly giving you the opportunity to get a game. If the manager did decide to rest a couple of players in the previous years, when the international qualifiers came around again, you would expect John Terry and Rio Ferdinand to be playing again.”
Poland’s stand-in captain, Marcin Wasilewski, thinks a game against a team of England’s perceived standing could prove a turning point for the hosts:
“Such a match against quality opposition is needed. It is similar to a game we had against Portugal a few years ago. Everyone thought we would lose but we won, and it gave us the spur we needed to go on and qualify for the European Championship [in 2008]…There is always additional emotion when it is England. Everyone watches the Premier League and everyone likes it.”
My prediction of a 2-1 England win is already on record elsewhere on the internet, so in the interests of honesty and transparency I’m going to stick to it. But I must admit to not being entirely confident. In fact, Blaszczykowski’s absence is potentially a crucial deciding factor. Whatever happens, tonight is a vital game for Hodgson’s side and coming away with three points would be a big step towards the World Cup.
(Photo credit: _gee_ via Flickr)
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