There comes a time in the life of every England qualifying campaign for a major tournament when the team are required to lay down a marker and, three games in on the road to the 2014 World Cup finals, that time feels like tomorrow night in Warsaw.
Poland, ranked 54th by Fifa, are 12 places behind Ukraine, whom England must play in Kiev in 11 months' time. Poland are ranked behind Montenegro, in 44th place, who also feature in England's group and drew with the Poles in their opening qualifier. Ukraine got a point at Wembley last month but then lost ground to England on Friday by drawing against Moldova in Chisinau, where England won 5-0. A win for Hodgson's side tomorrow would still leave them with some distance to go in qualifying but it would put them in a good position to control the group. So far the top four, England, Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine, all yet to lose, have proved capable of matching each other. England could do with inflicting the first defeat.
On the flight to Warsaw today, Hodgson has the closest thing yet to his strongest XI since Euro 2012. For the first time since the defeat on penalties to Italy in Kiev he has Gerrard and Wayne Rooney both available to play. He is missing Euro 2012 players such as Scott Parker, Ashley Young and Theo Walcott but he has Michael Carrick, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Lennon.
The Hodgson style has now emerged, a 4-2-3-1 formation with Rooney playing behind the striker in the role occupied by Tom Cleverley in the first three games after Euro 2012. The emergency-style approach of the summer is over. Hodgson is no longer picking up the pieces left by Fabio Capello; he is building his own team with the 2014 World Cup finals in mind and tomorrow night is that team's most exacting test yet.
Not because Poland are the best opposition England will face in Group H; the Fifa rankings, imperfect though they may be, tell us otherwise. But this feels like the moment. The National Stadium in Warsaw is sold-out and the hosts have a point to prove. There is a great deal of unhappiness in Poland with the team's failure to make it out of the group stages at their home Euros. Poland's coach at that tournament, Franciszek Smuda, resigned; Grzegorz Lato, the president of the Polish football association, has announced he will not stand for re-election. The captain, Jakub Blaszczykowski, is injured. The mood of melancholy has not been improved by the failure of Polish clubs to qualify for the Champions League or Europa League group stages. Yet they are, by all accounts, up for this game.
Hodgson's two immediate predecessors, Capello and Steve McClaren, have been defined in their qualifying records by their pre-Christmas results in the first year of the campaigns they fought. Beat Poland tomorrow, and by the time England go to Podgorica in March, they could be more than three points clear of a Montenegro side with whom they drew home and away in qualifying for Euro 2012.
Fail to win in Warsaw and the pressure builds over Christmas and new year, as it always does in international football, where managers have no shortage of time to ponder a disappointing result.Reuse content