England got away with one here. Harry Maguire swung a boot and made a connection of such sweetness, Harry Kane could only stand in admiration as it flew past his shoulder.
With five minutes to go, that was enough. England had got a win that was expected, and also deserved, but put preciously as risk by poor defending. England at home versus a Robert Lewandowski-less Poland.
Who wasn’t rubbing their hands when it was announced the best striker in Europe had gone lame against Andorra. Gareth Southgate has had some very good breaks as England manager, and here was another. The failure to take advantage of it would have been greatly disappointing.
No wonder the coaches were punching the air when England’s handiness from set pieces paid dividends once again. Phil Foden curled in a corner which his Manchester City team-mate John Stones kept in with a header at the back post. It picked out Maguire, unmarked, and his first time finish did the rest. But it was perilously close.
Harry Maguire celebrates scoring a late winner to help England overcome Poland in their 2022 World Cup qualifier
The Three Lions defender thumped home the winning goal with five minutes left on the clock to win it on Wednesday
The emphatic finish was too much for Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (centre right), who could only get a hand to it
Next time these teams meet Lewandowski may be fit, and who knows how that encounter will play out given the bother the likes of Jakub Moder, of Brighton, caused Stones? He has been in outstanding form for Manchester City this season, but here was one of those games that reminded us why he had to fight to get back into that team.
Slack for the goal, Stones’ performance was not aided by goalkeeper Nick Pope, who was as unconvincing here as he had been in two games in which he had nothing to do.
It was a good night in terms of the result and three wins from three cannot be faulted as the start of a World Cup qualification campaign, but questions remain – not least in the way England set up against any team that poses a modicum of threat.
There had been much talk about the personnel Gareth Southgate would use to approach this tie – the biggest test of this three-game international break – but in reality an absence on the Polish side was more decisive than any of England’s permutations.
England got off to a promising start after Raheem Sterling was brought down inside the box on the 20-minute mark
England skipper Harry Kane stepped up to calmly convert the penalty and give Gareth Southgate's side a first-half lead
Kane went straight down the middle with his spot-kick, with Szczesny incorrectly diving to his right
Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal and becoming England's highest scorer from the penalty spot
The Tottenham talisman is congratulated by Phil Foden (centre) and Sterling (right) after scoring from the spot
No Robert Lewandowski, should have spelled no problem. Indeed, that was the bottom line, for much of this match. Certainly the first-half, when Poland’s best opportunity came from a pass by goalkeeper Nick Pope, lashed at John Stones, who had no chance of controlling it cleanly.
The ball spun off him – in Stones’ defence, Diego Maradona would have struggled to kill it in one touch – but fortunately out of harm’s way. Pope has been on an encouraging run of clean sheets since his England debut, but even Jordan Pickford’s biggest detractors would have to admit his distribution is a significant upgrade. That is certainly one of the qualities Southgate recognises in him.
In the second-half Pope got in another dreadful pickle with Stones, which ended with him on the floor contesting for a loose ball with Poland’s Krzysztof Platek, referee Bjorn Kuipers generously finding in the goalkeeper’s favour. Soon after, the Dutchman was on England’s side again, when the ball struck Harry Maguire’s hand, under pressure from Platek again.
These moment of skittishness aside, however, Poland were disappointing until their goal. They had one truly dismal free-kick and a whole lot of nothing, minus their cutting edge striker. It took England’s defensive fallibility to get them back into the game.
Pope played the ball to Stones, who took a casual, sloppy touch that seemed to presume no Polish players would bother pressing him. Wrong. Jakub Moder was on him, stealing the ball on the edge of the area and passing to substitute Arkadiusz Milik. Moder got it straight back and smashed it past Pope, the first goal he had conceded as an international footballer.
However, Poland were gifted a goal following a John Stones blunder, with Jakub Moder scoring the equaliser for the visitors
Stones was caught on the ball outside his own area, which Moder (left) did well to capitalise on before scoring
After poking the ball free from Stones, Moder received the ball back before firing a shot past a helpless Nick Pope
Stones (left) cuts a dejected figure after being caught on the ball and for being at fault for Poland's equaliser
Until that point, England controlled the game but if Southgate had to encourage them to advance with greater intent, he may need to look closer to home. He spoke before the game of the need to strike a balance between attack and defence and cited Terry Venables as his influence in that area.
Yet Venables had no more than four defensive players even against the best teams at Euro 96 – Paul Ince was his holding midfield, for heaven’s sake – while Southgate went with six against a very limited Polish side, given neither Declan Rice or Kalvin Phillips are famed for getting forward.
It was no surprise, then, that on occasions Southgate could be seen encouraging his men to play higher. In the eighth minute, Ben Chilwell got down the left and put in a cross that Phil Foden couldn’t quite get over to direct towards goal, but the attacking impetus drifted after that. England’s goal was a penalty and one shot on target of note after that a poor return given the gulf between these teams.
How to put that in context. Well, the player who gave away the penalty for Poland plays for Barnsley. Nothing against Barnsley, of course. John Stones played for Barnsley and it didn’t do him any harm. But he didn’t play for England while he was at Oakwell. The last player to represent England while with Barnsley was George Utley, in 1913. He is also the only one.
And it was a Barnsley tackle that handed England their lead. Raheem Sterling was going nowhere, almost running the ball out when Michal Helik made his challenge and caught him with a trailing leg. Sterling accepted the gift, gratefully, and made sure referee Bjorn Kuipers knew about it. Harry Kane did the rest, straight down the middle from the spot, overtaking Frank Lampard as England’s leading penalty taker in the process, with ten.
He could have had a second, this time from open player, when teed up by Phil Foden after 31 minutes, but this time goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was equal to it. Sterling was the main threat, that apart, with a couple of excellent jinking runs and some good combinations with Chelsea duo Chilwell and Mason Mount.
He should have done better, too, on the counter with Foden. Sterling’s final ball was poor, but Foden’s run could have been smarter, too. It was one of those rare occasions when his lack of experience showed.
Scroll down to re-live the minute-by-minute action as it happened with Sportsmail
England will be aiming to make it three wins out of three in 2022 World Cup qualifying tonight when they welcome Poland to Wembley.
Gareth Southgate's men have managed back-to-back wins against San Marino and Albania in the international break, scoring seven goals while keeping two clean sheets in their previous 180 minutes.
With Poland dropping points against Hungary last time out, the Three Lions can take control of Group I with a win over tonight's opponents who are without talisman Robert Lewandowski.
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