In the eyes of a fair few people, England got the hard part of their two-part mission to qualify automatically for the 2014 Brazil World Cup out of the way with their decent 4-1 win over Montenegro on Friday. I disagree.
The win, the performance and the tactical approach employed by Roy Hodgson mean we head into tonight’s game with nice momentum, yes. Poland, by contrast, can no longer reach Brazil and on paper have nothing to play for. Simple, right?
Wrong. Though it may seem a straightforward passage for England now, the Poland match very much remains a do-or-die scenario.
It’s not because of the away fans, either: the FA over the weekend increased the Poland supporters’ allocation from 8.000 fans to 18,000. It’s led to a very small wave of concern that the rowdy Polish support will play a part in making things difficult for the hosts.
But one thing I learned from my days as a player is that only one thing matters in a game – what happens on the pitch. Every other factor that could possibly influence a game, from the atmosphere made by the fans to even the manager’s best team talk, can be wiped clean out of contention by an early goal or even 20-30 minutes of good play.
No, what casts doubt on the result tonight isn’t the fans factor, but the fear factor – or lack thereof.
Poland may have nothing to lose, but they are a proud nation with a host of talent. While not quite the emerging force that Belgium look to be, they have nonetheless brought along some fantastic talent over the last five years and have a team capable of beating any other nation at least one time out of 10.
I was on the bench for England when they went to Katowice looking for a point to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The experience of Terry Butcher, Peter Shilton and others was crucial in scraping that point, and even then the crossbar came to the rescue right at the death.
Poland always have, and always will, have a go at you. Even when they have nothing to play for but pride – because they have that in bucketloads.
I was at Queens Park Rangers when that 0-0 draw took place. Most of the experience I’d gain as a player remained ahead of me. Had I started that game, it would have been a make-or-break experience.
Unfortunately, a lot of the current squad are in that position tonight. Friday’s hero Andros Townsend is one who has never been in such a crucial fixture, of course. But he isn’t the only one.
Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Leighton Baines, Phil Jaglielka, and more will be entering a true ‘must-win’ scenario for their country – or at all – for the first time. Even manager Roy Hodgson has experienced little like this before as a boss.
In a match like this, where England will surely win but absolutely cannot afford not to, you’d like to see a little more hardened experience sporting the Three Lions on the pitch.
Much like the other intangible factors mentioned earlier , England can wipe this clean off the table with a hot start and an early goal. But if anything is going to get the nerves jangling at Wembley, it will be Poland’s intrepid, unchained approach and not 18,000 supporters.