England’s FIFA World Cup 2014 qualifier against Poland in Warsaw was delayed by 20 hours because of torrential rain in the Polish capital and the failure of the local authorities to close the stadium’s roof.
We’ll probably never quite know what happened on Tuesday, and it is true that only a small percentage of games even have the option of closing a roof. Complaints about late decisions and a lack of information remain.
The game was eventually played at 4pm on Wednesday and was a deeply unsatisfactory affair. England manager Roy Hodgson made reference after the 1-1 draw to the state of the pitch which, after how it looked on Tuesday, was understandably not in the best condition on Wednesday. It was boggy and cut up quickly, and the game as a spectacle suffered.
Poland adjusted far better to the conditions and the inconvenience, and will feel they should have won the game. They threatened more often than England in a first half that was characterised largely by the visitors’ sloppy passing and lethargic all round play. England were wasteful and Poland shaded a poor half, Lukasz Piszczek in particular causing problems for Hodgson’s men.
Nevertheless it was England who retreated to the tunnel with a half time lead. Half an hour into the game Steven Gerrard delivered a routine corner from the left-hand side and Wayne Rooney mis-timed his header only very slightly, but enough to allow the ball to clip off his shoulder and then his marker and float inside an unmanned far post to give England the advantage.
The second half was a concerning experience for England fans, and was reminiscent of the approach that makes supporting a team managed by Martin O’Neill such an endlessly stressful experience. 1-0 up, England allowed themselves to be driven back and it was difficult to tell to what extent the strategy was a deliberate one. It certainly appeared as if England were willing to sit on their narrow lead.
Poland’s equaliser was inevitable and arrived with 20 minutes remaining. A corner was whipped in from the opposite flank to the one from which England scored and was headed home by Kamil Glik. Joleon Lescott’s attempt to challenge him was ineffective, but it is Joe Hart who rightly took responsibility for an error of judgement.
In his post-match analysis, ITV’s Gareth Southgate identified a corridor of space between Hart’s goal line and the edge of his six-yard box, a space that Southgate and Roy Keane argued tempted him out of his goal and resulted in his being stranded after an extremely poor attempt to alleviate the danger.
But it’s not just Hart who underperformed – in truth, it was the whole team. As well as a catalogue of small errors that amounted to a clumsy team showing, there was no energy and no tempo to a lacklustre performance. Today, there is a theory that sleeping pills didn’t help matters. Personally, I think it was just one of those games, the type that neatly summarise why St George’s Park will only be part of a solution.
Stripping yesterday’s match back to the basics, a draw in Poland is a respectable result. Had England beaten Ukraine at Wembley then we could justifiably be happy with winning our home games and plucking a few points here and there from away games. More importantly, it should be pointed out that England are still top of Group H and unbeaten. But Montenegro in second and Poland in third both have a game in hand, and that will be a source of concern for Hodgson and England.
Like me, Henry Winter of The Telegraph was disappointed in the overall performance and, more specifically, the alarming return to the aimless long ball:
“Tiresome, traditional flaws were in evidence. England too often treated the ball as an alien object, offloading too hurriedly, occasionally to the Poles, often to the crowd. At least, the closed roof would have prevented any wayward clearances disappearing into the Vistula. And so it began. Michael Carrick gave the ball away, then Glen Johnson overhit a pass, then Gerrard wasted possession, then Milner. Carrick, usually sensible in delivery, erred again… A theme was developing here, certainly developing more than a cohesive move, and that theme was a failure to keep the ball.”
The BBC’s Phil McNulty pointed out that Hodgson’s complaints might have been fair, but they do not constitute an adequate excuse:
“He made valid points about the delay perhaps disrupting England’s rhythm of preparation and the soggy surface not helping efforts to build momentum, but there can be no real excuses. This was an England effort that went beyond average. It also strengthened the growing belief that negotiating a path out of Group H and on to the road to Rio in 2014 may not be as easy as many thought when the draw was made.”
As far as The Mirror‘s Martin Lipton is concerned, Hodgson’s honeymoon period is a thing of the past:
“In the wake of the Euro 2012 exit, Hodgson promised an improving, more potent, more convincing side. While, without breaking sweat, England have put five past Moldova and San Marino this autumn, they have, at best and charitably, scrambled draws from their other two games, first against Ukraine at Wembley and now in the National Stadium.”
By and large, Wednesday’s match should have alarm bells ringing within the England camp. And yet a couple of good results against Montenegro and a win over Poland at Wembley would have England sitting pretty once more. For me, the bigger question is whether Hodgson’s first qualifying campaign is going to have any positive effect whatsoever on the long-term change we so sorely need.
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