England came home last night and found Polish burglars had got there first. However, after a long and nervous struggle they ended the night with their Wembley record secure and three more World Cup points in the bag.
While the result was good the performance was not, but this was another night when the result mattered most. Yet when Poland went ahead after six minutes, and dominated the next 15, it seemed even England's unbeaten World Cup Wembley record might be in doubt.
Then Alan Shearer, the new Captain Marvel, scored twice in a dozen minutes. England - and Shearer - should have scored again but so could have the Poles. In Piotr Nowak they had the game's best player and, in the final analysis, David Seaman proved as important as Shearer.
Hoddle had paired Les Ferdinand and Shearer together for only the second time in England colours. The previous occasion - 65 minutes against Portugal last December - was so unmemorable that Shearer said this week that he could not even remember it.
Nick Barmby, the opening goalscorer in Moldova, made way for Ferdinand. Gary Pallister was also dropped, to accommodate Steve McMana- man, who began in a free role behind the strikers. Gary Neville withdrew to the right of the back three.
Ferdinand was one of three players in the starting line-up who had not played in Euro 96. The others, Andy Hinchcliffe and David Beckham, had never played for England at Wembley before but had finished on the winning side in an FA Cup final.
For the first 25 minutes any watching manager may have wondered just what Hoddle had been doing with his players for the past seven days. Though Ferdinand won two good headers there was little indication that he had ever met Shearer before. The defence, midfield and attack seemed separate entities and the Poles, contrary to expectation, seemed only too keen and able to attack.
Within six minutes they were rewarded. Tomasz Hajto crossed from the right, Neville, committed, was wrong-footed by a deflection and the ball fell to Marek Citko. He took it down sweetly and drove it past Seaman to stun a previously euphoric crowd. It was his first international goal.
Another cross flashed past the post minutes later and, for too long, England's only response seemed to be attempted dribbles through the centre of the Polish defence. Their passing was sloppy, their movement unimaginative. Even when Paul Gascoigne won a dangerously sited free-kick he wasted it.
Then, after 25 minutes, they scored the most English of goals. Beckham, given space on the right, floated a deep cross into the box. Andrzej Wozniak came for it but Shearer, brushing aside the challenge of Pawel Wojtala, bravely met the ball fractionally ahead of the goalkeeper and headed in.
Twelve minutes later Shearer, cutting in from the left, shot optimistically. The ball cannoned off a defender to Ferdinand, he held it up, laid it back, and Shearer crashed it home. The Toon one-two and the captain's eighth goal in seven games.
He almost had a hat-trick from a Hinchcliffe corner and Paul Ince shot over but, just as it seemed the Poles were crumbling, they almost levelled. Nowak, their captain and most influential player, drove forward before unleashing a 25-yard shot bound for the far corner of Seaman's goal. Somehow the Arsenal keeper arched and tipped it wide. Hajto headed just over with barely a challenge from the resultant corner and England - and Hoddle - went into half-time with much work still to be done.
They returned with a slightly tighter defensive formation but, within five minutes, they had to adjust again as Gary Pallister came on for Gareth Southgate. It was an unhappy return to Wembley for Southgate, who limped off injured after being hurt in a tackle.
The game was still remarkably open for a major international - without many clear chances being created. Gascoigne, growing in influence, had a shot deflected over with one and tested the goalkeeper with another.
Steve McManaman was fast becoming England's most influential player, causing concern among the Polish defence every time he gained possession. One run, after 70 minutes, led to a free-kick on the edge of the box - but no booking. The German referee seemed out of the old "man's game" school of refereeing - for which Ince, in particular, had reason to be grateful.
The aforementioned free-kick was hammered in by Stuart Pearce with such venom Wozniak did well to block it. But no England player had had the foresight to follow in and the loose ball was cleared. This was in direct contrast to the Dutch display at Cardiff on Saturday - Neville Southall had had to hold every one of the many free-kicks.
The referee did eventually book Hajto, for pulling Gascoigne's shirt, after 75 minutes. By then England should have been two ahead, Shearer heading wide after losing his marker from Hinchcliffe's free-kick.
Seaman then made a fine save from Nowak, Gascoigne wasted a chance and Ferdinand went close. While England did not quite end the night hanging on neither were they dominant. There were a lot of chewed nails by the end.
ENGLAND (3-4-1-2): Seaman (Arsenal); G Neville (Man United), Southgate (Aston Villa), Pearce (Nottingham Forest); Beckham (Man United), Ince (Internazionale), Gascoigne (Rangers), Hinchcliffe (Everton); McManaman (Liverpool); Ferdinand (Newcastle United), Shearer (Newcastle United). Substitute: Pallister (Man United) for Southgate, 51. Substitutes not used: Campbell (Tottenham), Platt (Arsenal), Le Tissier (Southampton), Sheringham (Tottenham), Barmby (Middlesbrough), Walker (Tottenham, gk).
POLAND (3-4-1-2): Wozniak (Porto); Wojtala (Widzew Lodz), Zielinski (Legia Warsaw), Jozwiak (Guingamp); Hajto (Gornik Zabrze), Michalski (Widzew Lodz), Waldoch (Bochum), Baluszynski (Bochum); Nowak (Munchen 1860); Warzycha (Panathanaikos), Citko (Widzew Lodz). Substitute: Saganowski (Feyenoord) for Warzycha, 75. Substitutes not used: Wegrzyn (Katowice), Ledwon (Katowice), Staniek (Legia Warsaw), Brzeczek (Tirol), Kucharski (Legia Warsaw), Szczesny (Widzew Lodz, gk).
Referee: H Krug (Germany).
World Cup football, results, page 31
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