Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard scored the goals that sent England marching to Brazil after a breathless and at times nerve-jangling confrontation with Poland at Wembley.
Scorers: England - Rooney (41), Gerrard (88)
Referee: D Skomina (Slv)
Rooney rose to guide home Leighton Baines’ cross four minutes from half-time on a raucous evening, which a Polish contingent in excess of 20,000 at times made feel like an away day.
It was the Manchester United man’s 38th England goal, and his ninth in ten games, confirming his status as his team’s talisman heading into yet another major tournament.
However, after spurning a succession of chances, both before and after Rooney’s goal, to evoke memories of that awful night in 1973 when “the clown” Jan Tomaszewski denied them, it took a captain’s intervention by Gerrard two minutes from time to ensure England will take their place on the greatest stage next summer.
Manager Roy Hodgson, who lived every minute in glorious agony, leaped to the air in jubilation, becoming only the sixth Englishman to take his country into a World Cup finals.
Hodgson joins an illustrious list, including Walter Winterbottom, Sir Alf Ramsey, Ron Greenwood, Bobby Robson and Glenn Hoddle, and can now look ahead to December’s draw knowing the minimum task for his tenure has been achieved.
With the atmosphere more like Krakow than London, England tried to keep possession to stifle the crowd. They had to wait until the eighth minute to launch their first real attack, however. Baines found space and swung in a low cross, but Artur Jedrzejczyk cut the ball out just before Danny Welbeck arrived.
The Polish crowd were then brought to the edge of their seats as Robert Lewandowski cantered up the other end on the counter, but Joe Hart saved from the Borussia Dortmund striker.
England were soon back on the attack. Wojciech Szczesny, deputising for thigh-strain victim Artur Boruc, spilled Andros Townsend’s long-range shot, but Welbeck was too late for the follow-up.
Waldemar Sobota rippled the side-netting as the game maintained its helter-skelter pace.Chris Smalling should have put England ahead moments later when a Steven Gerrard free kick fell into his lap – but he completely missed the ball.
Poland then had a superb chance to go ahead as they raced at the England defence. It was three on three, but Lewandowski mishit his shot as he bore down on Joe Hart and England breathed again.
Townsend then produced a wonderfully lofted 25-yard shot which sailed over Szczesny. Michael Carrick, stood just yards behind the Tottenham man, threw his arms in the air to celebrate, but the shot struck the bar. The ball dropped to Daniel Sturridge’s feet, but Szczesny was back up and he blocked the Liverpool striker’s shot.
Szczesny, just like Tomaszewski 40 years ago, was performing superbly. The Arsenal stopper forced an off-balance Welbeck wide and then saved from Rooney. Kamil Glik then put a crucial block in on Gerrard as England pressed for an opener just before half-time.
Just as the hosts looked destined to reach the break without breaking the deadlock, Rooney came to the rescue. With four minutes of the half remaining, the Manchester United striker gained a yard in the box before glancing Baines’ pinpoint cross past Szczesny. Hodgson ran off the bench, arms aloft, while Rooney kissed the Three Lions.
Poland brought Mateusz Klich on at the break and he almost equalised with his first touch. With the half just 24 seconds old, Klich got on the end of a pass from Jakub Blaszczykowski, but Gary Cahill flung himself in the path off the goal-bound ball and diverted it wide.
Cahill would have had a goal to his name soon after but Szczesny dived well to his right to save from the Chelsea defender.
Grzegorz Krychowiak almost gifted England a second when he guided Rooney’s cross just inches wide of his own goal.
Lewandowski then latched on to a long ball over the top, but Hart raced off his line to smother the striker’s shot and Cahill thumped the ball clear.
The tense atmosphere that preceded the goal returned. Poland had much more of the possession and England looked vulnerable to the pace of Lewandowski.
But, with three minutes to go, the tense atmosphere lifted inside Wembley as Gerrard ran on to a through ball from Rooney and cut inside his marker before somehow flicking the ball past Szczesny despite being well off balance. The England captain was mobbed by his team-mates in the celebration and Hodgson sprinted off the bench with his arms in the air knowing his team had made it through to Brazil.
England: Hart, Smalling, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines, Carrick, Gerrard, Townsend, Rooney, Welbeck, Sturridge. Subs: Ruddy, Jones, Gibbs, Wilshere, Lampard, Milner, Barkley, Defoe, Sterling, Lambert, Forster.
Poland: Szczesny, Wojtkowiak, Jedrzejczyk, Glik, Celeban, Blaszczykowski, Mierzejewski, Krychowiak, Sobota, Mariusz Lewandowski, Robert Lewandowski. Subs: Boruc, Wasilewski, Jodlowiec, Polanski, Zielinski, Klich, Wawrzyniak, Peszko, Sobiech, Rzezniczak, Fabianski.