With 72 minutes on the clock, the thought occurred that Harry Kane had not had much service. It was partly because the England captain was trying to provide it for others, dropping back from his centre-forward’s position to pick his passes.
It was time for Kane to take matters into his own hands. The ball was worked to him at the top of the midfield and, with little on and Poland players backing off him rather too respectfully, Kane unloaded with murderous intent.
The 30 yarder would have rearranged Jan Bednarek’s senses had it been slightly lower. Instead it flew over the centre-half before dipping and fading viciously away from Wojciech Szczesny’s left hand and into the bottom corner.
At that point, England looked well set for the victory that would have virtually assured them of direct qualification to the finals of the Qatar World Cup next year. They had come to control the second half of this match and yet there would be a twist.
First, there was a let-off when Jordan Pickford saw an 82nd minute clearance charged down by the substitute, Karol Swiderski, although he was able to get back and clear. Wasn’t he supposed to have eradicated those lapses?
And then, at the very death, with Poland pushing and England struggling to clear their lines, the home crowd got the moment they had come for. Robert Lewandowski fashioned a lovely cross from the left and, arriving like a bullet train, was the substitute, Damian Szymanski, to crash a header home. The celebrations exploded like a firecracker. Poland had needed something here, more than England and, although it was not victory, it was something. Their hopes of finding a way to Qatar, most likely via the play-offs, remain alive.
The clock is ticking loudly for the World Cup finals and England knew that they would not face tougher opposition than this Poland team for the remainder of the calendar year. Their final qualifiers come in October and November against Andorra, Hungary, Albania and San Marino. Thereafter there are just three international get-togethers before the first ties in Qatar. Which feels a little crazy.
Poland had seriously pushed England at Wembley last March, taking a grip on the tie in the second half before Harry Maguire’s late winner settled it. Southgate had preached his usual gospel of humility, even if there is the feeling in these parts that Paulo Sousa’s team flunked the Euros, beset as they were by defensive frailties.
There are errors in this team and there were sharp intakes of breath from the home support during the first half when, for example, Kamil Glik surrendered possession to Kalvin Phillips in a dangerous area. Or Bednarek was tricked by a Kane nutmeg as the England captain launched a counter-attack. Both moves came to nothing.
This magnificent arena was packed to the rafters and it was nice to hear the majority applaud the British anthem before kick-off. Less welcome were the raucous jeers that poured down from every stand when England’s players took the knee. At that moment, Lewandowski pointed to the respect logo on his shirt. A class act.
It was clear at the outset that the partisan crowd would play their part, raising their players and putting pressure on the referee, Daniel Siebert. His decision to book Phillips early on for what looked like an accidental contact on Tymoteusz Puchacz felt alarming from an England point of view. Phillips had to tread a tightrope. There would be moments when England wanted free-kicks for fouls and did not get them – Jack Grealish, in particular, feeling that his markers nibbled at him rather too often – and tempers were never too far from boiling point.
John Stones had heated words for Lewandowksi when the Poland striker went to ground as Southgate’s team held a high defensive line on an early free-kick and Maguire felt the red mist descend after the half-time whistle when players from both sides came together. Maguire was incandescent and he had to be held back. Both he and Glik were booked.
Declan Rice was an authoritative presence during a frenzied opening 20 minutes when it was a time for England to dig in, to keep Poland at arm’s length, which they largely managed to do. For all of the home team’s determination and physicality, they only flickered once before the interval when Karol Linetty lobbed through for Lewandowski and he got in front of Kyle Walker. The finish was tame.
England’s best moment of a limited first-half crop came when Raheem Sterling blasted past Puchacz to cross but Kane, in behind Glik, could not get direction on his header.
A feature of the first half was the sight of Kane dropping deep to try to set the play; at one point, he floated out towards the right-back position, where he took a heavy touch and almost allowed Poland to break. England needed to better calibrate their attacking options in the second half because it was clear that Sterling had the beating of Puchacz and Grealish’s runs with the ball were latently menacing.
England took higher starting positions; they pressed harder onto the front foot. They were able to create overloads on the flanks and the tone shifted. There was less for the vociferous hordes to rally behind, even if the noise did not stop. Grealish sent a cross-cum-shot just past the far post and England’s hearts jumped when Maguire rose to direct a header from Luke Shaw’s free-kick against the far post. Sterling was flagged offside when he chased the rebound.