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Wayne Rooney opener, Steven Gerrard insurance vault England past Poland, into World Cup

Oct 15, 2013, 4:58 PM EDT

Britain England Poland WCup Soccer AP

Through a day of near-misses and second half doubts, England’s two biggest stars made sure the Three Lions would avoid a playoff en route to Brazil. With a late first half opener from Wayne Rooney and second half insurance from captain Steven Gerrard, England defeated Poland 2-0 Tuesday at Wembley Stadium – a victory that gives them UEFA’s Group H and a place in World Cup 2014.

With Ukraine sure to take three points at San Marino, England knew they needed a win over Poland to avoid UEFA’s World Cup Qualifying playoffs. The Three Lions led their group by one point coming into the day, so any dropped points would allow the Ukranians to snatch first place, and with a 7-0 win at San Marino, the chasers did their part.

England were also ready to do theirs, overcoming a large and vocal contingent of Polish fans at Wembley Stadium to claim most of the first half’s chances. While 40 minutes or near-misses gave the impression that pressure would be rendered meaningless (England’s dominance of their right side failing to yield a goal), the hosts finally broke through just before intermission. Off a well-served cross from replacement left back Leighton Baines, Wayne Rooney headed home just inside Wojciech Szczesny‘s left post.

Poland came out renewed in the second half, not only slowing England’s approaches but also forcing Joe Hart into a save on Robert Lewandowski to prevent an early equalizer. Slightly rattled and seeing their momentum blunted, England were left to wonder if their single goal would hold up. Rather than going for a second, Roy Hodgson’s substitutions hinted his team was content to protect their one.

But after Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere, and James Milner reinforced the midfield (replacing Michael Carrick, Daniel Sturridge, and Andros Townsend), England regained control of the match, and when their captain stepped up in the 89th minute, fans lost all reason to doubt. Steven Gerrard, bursting out of midfield, latched onto a ball chipped toward Poland’s area. Cutting back in front of defender Kamil Glik before chipping over the oncoming Szczesny, Gerrard gave England their insurance. The 2-0 win sends the Three Lions to Brazil.

The victory was expected, but as chances went wasted before the second half’s slow start, England gave fans reason to worry. Ultimately, those reasons became empty doubts, with Group H’s winners qualifying for their fifth straight World Cup.

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