Harry Maguire’s late winner made it a maximum nine points from three World Cup 2022 qualifiers for England as they overcame Poland at Wembley.
Poland presented a much sterner test than the formalities against San Marino and Albania and it looked like England would have to settle for a point until Maguire struck five minutes from time.
England’s impressive first half brought a deserved lead when Harry Kane scored his 34th international goal from the penalty spot in the 19th minute, following Michal Helik’s challenge on Raheem Sterling.
And yet England almost paid the price for a largely average performance after the break as Poland, who were without injured world-class striker Robert Lewandowski, equalised when a dreadful error by Manchester City’s John Stones saw him concede possession on the edge of the area and Jakub Moder beat Nick Pope emphatically.
It was the first goal Pope had conceded in seven England appearances and looked like being costly until Stones made amends by showing superb athleticism to head Phil Foden’s corner into the path of Maguire, who lashed a powerful drive high past Wojciech Szczesny to keep manager Gareth Southgate’s perfect record in these World Cup qualifiers intact.
Rice rises to the occasion
England’s performance can be divided up into the two halves and ultimately they were very grateful for Maguire’s late intervention.
In the opening 45 minutes they were controlled and composed after a slow start, cutting through Poland at will although they did not create too many clear-cut chances.
England dominated in midfield, were barely threatened at the back, and the combination of Sterling and Mason Mount looked hugely promising on the left side.
And at the heart of it all was West Ham United’s Declan Rice, knitting play together in midfield, not merely breaking up attacks but showing a willingness to start them as well. The 22-year-old looks the complete operator, growing in stature with every game.
Rice is a certain starter when England open their Euro 2020 campaign against Croatia at Wembley on 13 June and he demonstrated once more what a crucial figure he will be in manager Southgate’s plans.
Kane, too, proved how important he will be as England again showed that they have the ability to grind out wins when not at their best.
In the second half, however, England were average and lost all of the fluency that allowed them to dominate in the first period.
Poland will be disappointed not to get a point after showing real spirit to fight their way back into contention, especially when they were without the stellar talent of Lewandowski.
In contrast to England, Poland’s players did not take the knee at kick-off but very clearly pointed to the “Uefa Respect” inscription on the left sleeve of their jersey, which refers to the European federation’s campaign against racism, xenophobia and intolerance.
For England, Maguire’s decisive late contribution made it a satisfactory start to their qualifying campaign.
England’s defensive question marks
England were not put to the test by master marksman Lewandowski, but even without him this match revived the fears that a potentially vulnerable defence will not get its first serious test until their Euro 2020 campaign begins.
And the warning signs were posted just before the hour when Stones received a pass from Pope, hesitated on the ball then faltered, allowing Poland to rob him of possession for Moder’s leveller.
Stones has been immaculate for Manchester City this season but this was a little like old times in an England shirt, the defender having been punished for carelessness before at this level.
In Stones’ defence he did brilliantly to create Maguire’s winner, but doubts about England’s defence remain. Lewandowski may have opened the cracks even wider had he been available.
‘Stones managed to compose himself’
England manager Gareth Southgate to ITV Sport: “We were very good in the first half, we were in control of the game and to concede a goal like we did can hit the team. They stuck at it, they recovered their composure and got an important set-play winner.
“John Stones managed to compose himself for the rest of the game and had a part in the winning goal which was important – you can fold in those moments and he didn’t.”
England defender Harry Maguire to ITV Sport: “It is a big win. We are playing to play at a World Cup. We started the game well but in the second half we didn’t. John [Stones] has been brilliant this year. Defenders make mistakes and when we do we get scrutinised. He made up for it with a great header at the back post.”
Kane from the spot – the best of the stats
- England have now won each of their last 20 home qualifying matches for the European Championship/World Cup – a run stretching back to October 2012.
- Poland lost for only the third time in their last 26 qualifying matches for the Euros/World Cup (W19, D4).
- England have only lost one of their 20 international matches against Poland (W12, D7) and are unbeaten in their last 17 against them.
- Kane became England’s all-time leading penalty scorer, netting his 10th penalty and overtaking Frank Lampard, who scored nine.
- Stones registered only his third assist in his 324 senior matches for club and country.
- Kane has been directly involved in 30 goals in 21 Euros/World Cup qualifying matches (22 goals, 8 assists), scoring at least once in each of his last 12 such appearances, stretching back to October 2017.
- 7FodenSubstituted forJamesat 86′minutes
- 9KaneSubstituted forCalvert-Lewinat 89′minutes
- 10SterlingSubstituted forLingardat 90′minutes
- 14HelikSubstituted forJozwiakat 54′minutes
- 20ZielinskiSubstituted forGrosickiat 86′minutes
- 13RybusSubstituted forRecaat 86′minutes
- 23PiatekSubstituted forAugustyniakat 76′minutes
- 9SwiderskiSubstituted forMilikat 45′minutesBooked at 46mins
- Björn Kuipers
Match ends, England 2, Poland 1.