Tonight’s game is the last World Cup qualifier this year: the next one is in San Marino in March and although England have a three point lead and a superior goal difference, it’s important to remember that we’ve played one more game than our nearest rivals – and that Montenegro’s game in hand is against San Marino next month, the same night we have a friendly against Sweden.
In that context, avoiding defeat in Warsaw tonight is vital. The good news is that in our eight games in Poland since July 1966, we’ve only lost once – the traumatic defeat in June 1973. Even though I was only eight, I knew it was an important game: some of my school friends came round just before kick off to ask me if I wanted to go outside to play on my bike: I remember leaning out of the front room window at my parents’ house and telling them I wasn’t coming out because I was going to watch the football.
In retrospect, I should’ve gone out.
The bad news is that we’ve only won three of our trips to Poland, but although our hosts are probably a second tier side in terms of European national football, they aren’t exactly mugs either: they’ve only lost three of their last 20 games at home but that includes a surprising defeat to the Czechs in the European Championships last summer that ended Polish hopes of qualification from the group stage.
The current Polish squad are a cosmopolitan lot: they play in ten different countries although the majority of them are based at home or in the Bundesliga: current leading goalscorer Robert Lewandowski plays for Borussia Dortmund, as does influential midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski, but the latter will be missing tonight due to injury. Although there”s a lot experience within the Polish side, goals have been in short supply: they’ve only scored more than two goals in one of their matches in the last year and that was against Andorra. The only player based in England is Tomasz Kuszczak (currently of Brighton) although he’ll probably start the game on the bench.
The lack of Polish goals is actually a good thing for England: we’ve only been shut out once in the last 20 games (Italy in the quarter finals of the European Championship) and we’ve scored in four of the last the five games in Poland so one might be enough. I’m expecting Roy Hodgson to pick his strongest (and most experienced) team to start this evening, with Steven Gerrard replacing Wayne Rooney as captain and Ashley ‘Pottymouth’ Cole to return at left back. Theo Walcott won’t play any part this evening after he was clattered by Aldo Simoncini on Friday evening.
To return to the main theme, not losing tonight is crucial but coming away with a point wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world either, especially if Montenegro are unable to win in Ukraine tonight – and that game starts an hour before ours, so we should have at least some idea how that’s going when the teams take the field tonight.
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