Sleepwalking England cannot take progress to Rio for granted


Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 headed 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? 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, above, and Robert Lewandowski among others to make them credible opponents, and Hodgson was right to say that other Group H teams will struggle in Warsaw. It emphasised that if England had come in a better frame of mind and played to their strengths, this 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.

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.