Monday brings the big one with Arsenal under pressure to tell a different story than the one everybody expects. But first, can Liverpool win and go top when nothing less is acceptable?
The mailbox reminds Liverpool fans they haven't won anything yet, while the crisis at Spurs continues to hog our inbox. At least there are no more jokes about a wet night at Stoke...
England have history with Poland in qualifiers. The 40th anniversary of Jan Tomaszewski's night at Wembley falls next month, and it seems obligatory to cast the final Group H qualifier in this light. On Saturday Matt Hughes wrote in the Times: "England must exorcise the demons of one of the worst nights in their footballing history to reach the World Cup finals when Poland visit Wembley on Tuesday." He goes on: "The similarities with 40 years ago are uncanny."
There are a couple of problems with this analysis, which Roy Hodgson addressed in part before the game. Hughes writes: "In his pre-match press conference, Hodgson had dismissed a question regarding superstitions based on England's poor record in years ending in three - they failed to qualify for either the World Cup or European Championship in 1973, 1983 and 1993."
It is to Hodgson's credit that he gave this attempt to bring numerology into football short shrift but Matt Hughes's ghosts are troubling me for further reasons. To start with, such ancient history is irrelevant to today's players. It may resonate with fans to some extent but surely does so far more with journalists, looking for a hook for a story, but even 2003 - when Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (for a few seconds) played in the Istanbul finale against Turkey as England did qualify in a year ending in three - has no discernible bearing on Tuesday night's game for the participants.
But more than this, England have met the ghosts of 1973 before and if any spirits need a visit from an exorcist it is not these ones. In 1986, Gary Lineker's hat-trick defined his playing career in the final group game at the Mexico World Cup, putting Bobby Robson's side en route to a meeting with Maradona, via Paraguay. Three years later a goalless draw in Chorzow - scene of defeat in 1973 - secured a place at Italia 90, putting Robson en route to a knighthood. And Lineker popped up again, in Poznan at my first England away game, to grab a draw and a place at Euro 92. (It is hard to forget the moving scenes of his post-match TV interview in front of us, as the remaining home fans chanted: "F*** off Gary, f*** off.")
It is true that Graham Taylor's draw in Chorzow in 1993 contributed to his eventual World Cup failure, but the Poles were also-rans in the group and England completed a third straight home victory over them.
Glenn Hoddle's side had to come from behind to win at Wembley in the autumn of 1996 but were rather more assured the next May, in their progress towards France 98. After Hoddle's demise, a Paul Scholes hat-trick gave Kevin Keegan a winning start two springs later. True, his side missed out on the victory they needed in Warsaw in September 1999, but with some enormous good fortune for England Poland were beaten in Stockholm and we sneaked through to the play-offs (and thence past Scotland to Euro 2000).
Forget 1973 and Poland being our bogey side: if such a thing really existed then we would be their bogey team, a point underlined even when the Poles finally qualified once again for a tournament after being drawn against England, the 2006 World Cup, but were still pipped for leadership of the group by Sven-Goran Eriksson's side. The decisive last match (with both teams guaranteed at least an automatic place as best runners-up) was played at Old Trafford and England's 2-1 win adds to five Wembley triumphs. England have a 100% home record against Poland since the 1973 game and that draw, painful as it was, proved the beginning of an unbroken 15-match unbeaten run against these opponents.
What about the claim that "the similarities with 40 years ago are uncanny"? Well, we are playing Poland at Wembley in our last group game - but they are eliminated, on their way to fourth place in the group, rather than leading the way as was the case back then. England are unbeaten, Poland have lost twice. Four of the 1973 Poland side had played for the coach, Kazmierz Gorski, in the final at the 1972 Olympics, including the captain, Kazmierz Deyna, scorer of both his side's goals as they claimed gold medals, and others at Wembley had been in the Olympic squad. Though England's failure to qualify was a shock and Poland had not been to the finals since 1938, they would finish third in West Germany and Grzegorz Lato was top scorer in the tournament: this was part of an extended golden age of Polish football, which with hindsight ended with another third place, at the 1982 World Cup.
True, Tuesday's game will be played on grass using a round ball, as was the case in 1973 if you forget how muddy it was then. But uncanny similarities seem slim on the ground, as Poland debates who should succeed Waldemar Fornalik, a homegrown coach or one such as Marcelo Bielsa or Avram Grant.
Part of the Polish frustration is that they have underperformed. Zbigniew Boniek, the head of the FA who was a star of the 1978 and 1982 World Cups, said this was Poland's worst qualification failure in part because of the undoubted quality at their disposal, starting with Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Lukasz Piszczek (currently out injured) of Borussia Dortmund. They have also had misfortune: when they were held by Montenegro last month, a linesman correctly flagged a Poland winner offside but had earlier missed a blatant penalty. There could be a Polish backlash on Tuesday, inflicting new trauma on England. But please, that will be completely unrelated to events of 40 years ago.
Those old ghosts have been stomped all over again and again by successive England sides. Here's hoping Roy Hodgson's team can maintain the tradition.
Thanks (!) for resurrecting a sickening and frustrating evening from the dim and distant corners of my mind - I was there and it was the quietest football coach journey back (to Southampton) I have ever been on. And I thought this memory didn't need exorcising..........- slimcarto