England are going to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Two goals to nil thanks to a goal in each half from Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard. Easily said but not so easily done. In truth, most were predicting a nervy night against a Poland team with the tools to trouble the hosts. There were trite comparisons to a devastating draw against the same country 40 years ago. And there were more than a few worrying moments. But this was anything but a tentative display. England delivered a swashbuckling performance that - for all its faults - had you right behind Roy's boys.
There was a nod to the need for a calm head as Michael Carrick came into the team in a holding midfield role (for 70 minutes at least, more on that later). And Chris Smalling offered a more defensively-minded option at right-back in the enforced absence of Glen Johnson and Kyle Walker. On paper, Hodgson appeared to be acknowledging this would be a long old night ahead.
However, what the 85,000+ crowd that included a large and vocal minority supporting the Poles were treated to was a front-foot effort from England. Andros Townsend continued to play like a man still on a high from his sensational debut on Friday, while left-back Leighton Baines was bright and busy as he camped out in the opposition half.
England's front four exchanged positions freely with Danny Welbeck showing the best and worst of his game as his intelligent movement engineered space that he was unable to take advantage of. Townsend beat his markers for fun and Daniel Sturridge radiated brooding menace in the box without finding the net. And then there was Rooney. Dropping off into the No.10 position, this was a mature forward ready to take responsibility. The statistics show Rooney played three of the four through-balls in the match. It was an inventive performance.
|England Creativity - Key passes|
The chances flowed. At both ends. Twice England were caught out from their own corner kicks and it was alarming the ease with which Poland were able to threaten on the counter-attack. Smalling failed to provide the defensive solidity that might have been expected and Hodgson's men can count themselves fortunate to have seen Robert Lewandowski - a world-class striker - fail to find the net from two one-on-one opportunities, Joe Hart doing superbly to deny him after the interval.
Unnervingly, it was exciting watching England. Reckless at the back and adventurous going forward. Counter-intuitively, the inclusion of a sitting midfielder in Carrick offered greater attacking threat thanks to his fast forward passes that found their man 48 times out of 51 attempts in the first half. One such first-time ball to the left wing found Baines. His fine cross was met by Rooney for the forward to head past Wojciech Szczesny for the breakthrough goal just before half time.
If Carrick was supposed to bring calm then goodness knows what the first 70 minutes would have looked like without him. This was a manic high tempo England, pressing the ball anywhere they happened upon it. This felt like Premier League football in all its error-strewn beauty. The best of the English game with a considerable caveat. And you sensed Hodgson knew it. The coach who presided over the goalless exit against Italy at Euro 2012 and the 0-0 draw away to Ukraine earlier in this qualifying campaign was surely out of his comfort zone. For better or worse, his team were in their element.
Rooney forced a marvellous save from Szczesny midway through the second half and the next goal looked likely to be decisive - not an ideal situation for a team a goal away from facing the perils of the play-offs. Hodgson must have been tempted to close an open game down. Instead it was Carrick hooked as Lampard was introduced in his place. It was a surprising substitution.
|England Midfielders - Passing accuracy|
We played some spectacular football with great speed and great tempo.Roy Hodgson
The 35-year-old midfielder was promptly booked and gave the ball away on several occasions as he completed just six passes in his 20 minute outing. England seemed to lose some control of the contest. But there was always Gerrard and the skipper had the drive to come up with a forward run late on and evade two defenders before flicking the ball past Szczesny for the tension-relieving second goal. Vindication again for Hodgson.
Where does he go from here? A campaign that looked stodgy in the waterlogged conditions in Poland and shaky in Podgorica when Montenegro battled back to draw, has ended on a high. "We played some spectacular football with great speed and great tempo," Hodgson told Sky Sports in reference to England's wins of the past week. It's tough to disagree. The manager has let England off the leash. And while few will be betting on victory in the Maracana on July 13 next year, this England team have at least got to the party. On this evidence, they might just enjoy themselves.