England reaches World Cup; Ukraine in playoffs
LONDON (AP) - Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard booked England's place at the World Cup on Tuesday, clinching a 2-0 victory over Poland and leaving Ukraine to settle for a place in the playoffs.
Rooney put England ahead with his seventh goal in his last six qualifiers, meeting Leighton Baines' cross to head in just before halftime.
"Getting the goal gave us some belief, the confidence to go on,'' Rooney said. "We believed we could win and then Stevie's goal has seen us qualify.''
Gerrard bundled the ball into the net in the 88th to secure top spot in Group H for unbeaten England.
Ukraine, which needed England to slip up to qualify automatically, cruised to an 8-0 victory over bottom-place San Marino with Marko Devic scoring a hat trick.
The Group H runners-up will contest a two-legged playoff against a European rival next month for a place at the finals in Brazil.
England, though, is already preparing for its fifth consecutive World Cup, with Roy Hodgson the first English manager of the team to secure qualification since Glenn Hoddle in 1997.
"We have a great togetherness, are there for each other and proved we can perform under pressure,'' Gerrard said.
The presence of at least 18,000 Polish fans inside Wembley made for a lively atmosphere, even though the visitors were already out of contention for the World Cup.
Poland seemed determined to end the campaign on a high, with Robert Lewandowski unsettling the England defense from the start.
The hosts, though, did have their chances - the first coming from Andros Townsend, who marked his England debut on Friday with a goal in the 4-1 victory over Montenegro.
Although Townsend's shot was repelled by Wojciech Szczesny, Danny Welbeck followed up with a diving header that went wide.
On a night when England had to be strong at the back, the defense was looking shaky, with Waldemar Sobota finding a way through but only hitting the sidenetting.
Even by the midway point of the first half, England was failing to contain the Polish threat, giving the ball away following its own corner and allowing Adrian Mierzejewski to a launch a counterattack.
After picking up possession in his own half, Mierzejewski ran down the pitch unchallenged before releasing Lewandowski, who squandered the opening by sidefooting wide.
In an open game, the action was end to end, with England defender Phil Jagielka heading off-target from a corner, Townsend curling against the crossbar from the edge of the area, and Welbeck stabbing the ball wide with the goal seemingly at his mercy.
As nerves increased for the home fans on a night when England had to win to qualify, the breakthrough came in the 41st minute.
Baines whipped in cross from the left and Rooney, having just lost a headband protecting an injury, flicked the ball into the net with his head.
With just the solitary goal, England was always at risk of throwing away its guaranteed place in Brazil.
And Hodgson's side struggled to find the net again after the break, although Poland nearly gifted England another 10 minutes into the second half when Grzegorz Krychowiak turned the ball just wide of his own goal.
The target also eluded England players, with Gerrard blasting the ball around the post on the hour, Rooney's curling strike saved by Szczesny and Daniel Sturridge's shot palmed away.
It took Gerrard to ease the anxieties by lifting the ball over Szczesny late on with his outstretched right foot.
"The big lesson is to play better in the second half,'' Gerrard said. "Against better teams we might get hurt. We need to keep the ball better.
"But what we have shown is, when the going gets tough, we don't concede goals.''
In San Marino, Ukraine took 13 minutes to take the lead, with Yevhen Seleznyov converting from the penalty spot to start the onslaught.
Devic rolled in his first goal between the legs of goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini two minutes later inside the box, and Seleznyov headed in his second in the 19th after meeting Ruslan Rotan's free kick.
It took Ukraine until six minutes into the second half to find the net again, with Devic headed his second goal before Andriy Yarmolenko's left-footed strike.
San Marino was reduced to 10 men after Mirko Palazzi conceded a penalty, and Devic converted from the spot.
After just a minute on the pitch, Roman Bezus was on the scoresheet in the 65th before Vitaliy Mondziuk rounded off the rout in the final moments.