England stutter to draw in Poland
Poland 1 England 1: At the end they did not know whether to blame the pitch, the postponement or just another England team looking fragmented and lacking in confidence, but one thing was for sure: Roy Hodgson's players were glad to leave Warsaw with a point in World Cup qualification.
They flew out of Poland last night, almost 24 hours after they were first scheduled to do so, leaving behind one of the most unusual international trips of their careers. Having been through Tuesday's postponement, England played much of yesterday's match like a team with their minds elsewhere.
They struggled to play to any kind of discernible style – do they have one? – and by the end they were clinging on grimly to a point against a Poland team that gained in confidence as they realised how little their opponents had. Wayne Rooney scored the game's first goal but for the most part looked lethargic and, having been moved to the left wing, was substituted for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The malaise even spread to the usually dependable Joe Hart, who came to punch Ludovic Obraniak's corner with 20 minutes of the game remaining and missed the ball, allowing Kamil Glik to head it past him. If it had not been Hart who opened the door to Poland, it would surely have been someone else because England had gone into that mode of existence when conceding seems inevitable.
Were there any excuses? Undoubtedly, the pitch was poor; "soggy" was how Hodgson described it, which he said did not suit the kind of passing game his team needed to play. They had, he said, looked "lively" and ready to go on Tuesday night but come yesterday afternoon, following the rain postponement, Hodgson was prepared to admit that he did not see the same fire in his players.
It would be easier to say who played well, rather than list those who were under par. Steven Gerrard could be relied upon to rally the team in difficult moments and make the telling interventions. Phil Jagielka was excellent in the first half and stayed composed for most of the second, albeit with a mistake just after half-time.
It was not a full-strength Poland team but they had enough danger in Kamil Grosicki and Robert Lewandowski among others to make them very credible opponents, and Hodgson was right to say that other Group H teams will struggle in Warsaw. It only emphasised the fact that if England had come here in a better frame of mind, and played to their strengths, this really could have been lift-off in qualification for the 2014 World Cup finals.
Montenegro, victorious in Ukraine on Tuesday night, will go top of Group H on 10 points from four games when – and it surely is when – they beat San Marino at home next month in their game in hand over England. Ordinarily, you would back England to win the big games remaining, Montenegro (away and home), Ukraine (away) and Poland (home), but they are not providing much evidence to support that faith.
Come next March, the qualifier in Montenegro, which follows the away fixture against San Marino, will give Hodgson a clear picture of where he stands. He will be aware that the eight best runners-up from the nine groups will play two-leg play-offs to reach the tournament, a possibility that cannot be ruled out for England.
Not as long as they stutter as they did yesterday. In Hodgson's mind the team are still unbeaten during his 11 games in charge, although most would consider elimination at the hands of Italy at Euro 2012 a defeat of some kind. They have had some good moments too, against Italy in August and in the 5-0 demolition of Moldova in Chisinau, but the draws with Ukraine and now Poland have introduced the notion of doubt.
The problem was that, under the tarpaulin roof over the National Stadium in Warsaw yesterday, England never really imposed themselves on the game. You might argue that a draw in Poland was more than some teams will get here – and there is some sense to that – but this is a country ranked 54th in the world by Fifa. If England are to be this unconvincing in qualification, what chance when – or rather if – they reach the tournament?
Yesterday, Hodgson deployed Tom Cleverley on the left side of the attacking three in his 4-2-3-1 formation, and it did not help the Manchester United man that he was up against Grosicki, arguably Poland's most significant attacking threat.
With Grosicki on the right and Pawel Wszolek on the left, Poland gave England many problems in the first half. Neither Ashley Cole nor Glen Johnson looked entirely reliable on the ball, although the latter made a couple of important tackles in his own area. Rooney conceded possession too often and seemed disconnected from Jermain Defoe, who was isolated.
Lukasz Piszczek was played in on goal on 13 minutes and Hart had to come off his line to block the ball but generally Poland failed to make much of their dominance. England scored against the run of play. It was Gerrard who won the corner and his ball in from the left found Rooney unmarked. He went to head the ball but it struck his shoulder and flew out of the reach of the keeper Przemyslaw Tyton.
Even after their goal, England struggled to gain a foothold in the game and were sloppy in possession. After the break, with Poland coming at them with greater confidence, Hodgson's team fell further and further back.
They switched to 4-1-4-1, with Rooney on the left side of midfield. Defoe was left to chase the long balls smashed out of defence in desperation, yet England still had chances. Coming in at the back post, Defoe got a poor contact on Gerrard's free-kick after Glik had handled.
Soon after Hodgson sent Danny Welbeck on for Defoe, James Milner intercepted the ball in his own half and picked out Welbeck's run in the left channel. The keeper Tyton did enough to push Welbeck wide and from his cut-back Rooney's shot was well over.
Then, on 70 minutes, came Glik's equaliser, after which Hodgson thought his team improved. At the end they bid farewell to their forlorn supporters high up in the second tier, those hardy souls who stayed another night and who might be wondering if that trip to Brazil in 19 months' time is such a certainty after all.
Man of the match Piszczek.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee G Rocchi (It).