LONDON (AFP) - England survived a night of tension to qualify for the World Cup after Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard secured a 2-0 win over Poland at Wembley Stadium on Tuesday.
Needing victory to conserve top spot in European qualifying Group H, England met their objective, thanks to a 41st-minute header from Rooney and a late strike from the captain, Gerrard.
It was an evening of cloying intensity for Roy Hodgson's side, however, as Poland, backed by around 18,000 raucous fans, threatened to pull off a repeat of their 1-1 draw in London 40 years ago that had denied England a place at the 1974 World Cup.
Instead, a pair of goals made in Merseyside saw England home, meaning that Hodgson can now look forward to becoming only the sixth Englishman to manage England at a World Cup in Brazil next year.
"I'm greatly satisfied," said Hodgson.
"It was a tough group - both Montenegro and Poland showed themselves to be great opponents, both home and away.
"We played some sensational football in the first half and we dug in very well and controlled them in the second.
"We've been working together for 18 months and the way we play has changed. We're getting better all the time and hopefully will get better still. The players really are a group and they trust each other."
England finished the campaign unbeaten, a point clear at the top of the group above Ukraine, whose 8-0 win away to San Marino was to prove in vain, with Poland nine points off the pace in fourth place.
"We tried to prove we can play as a unit and as a team, that we still have some strength in our team," said Poland coach Waldemar Fornalik.
"Looking at the goals and the points, the perception of our overall performance is different from the assessment of the way we played."
Hodgson made two changes to the team that had beaten Montenegro 4-1 on Friday, with Chris Smalling replacing the suspended Kyle Walker at right-back and Michael Carrick preferred to Frank Lampard in midfield.
For Poland, meanwhile, Arsenal's Wojciech Szczesny was the goalkeeper presented with a chance to emulate Jan Tomaszewski, whose acrobatics famously denied England a World Cup place in 1973.
With smoke from Polish fans' flares drifting across the pitch at kick-off and chants of 'Polska!' filling the air, the visitors could have been forgiven for thinking that they were the home side.
Indeed, England initially seemed cowed by the occasion and their failure to manage a succession of Polish counter-attacks saw first Waldemar Sobota and then Robert Lewandowski spurn good chances to put the Poles ahead.
The hosts had already threatened through Andros Townsend and Chris Smalling by then, however, and as the first period wore on, Poland struggled to get out of their own half.
After Phil Jagielka headed wide from a Gerrard corner, Townsend bent a 23m shot against the crossbar, with Szczesny parrying Daniel Sturridge's powerful follow-up.
Danny Welbeck scuffed wide from a Leighton Baines corner and was then thwarted by Szczesny, who also saved from Rooney before the breakthrough arrived four minutes prior to the interval.
Baines was given time to shape a cross into the box from the England left and Rooney met the Everton left-back's inviting centre with an unerring header into the bottom-right corner.
It was the Manchester United striker's seventh goal in his last six qualifying games, but Sturridge could not follow his lead, the Liverpool man heading over from a good position shortly before half-time.
Poland substitute Mateusz Klich gave England a couple of early scares in the second half and although Szczesny had to repel a Gary Cahill header and Grzegorz Krychowiak almost put through his own goal, the hosts continued to look vulnerable.
Defensive inattention on the hour allowed Lewandowski to ghost in behind the England back four, but Hart rushed out alertly to block.
With Ukraine handsomely ahead in Serravalle, a single goal for Poland would have been enough to condemn England to the play-offs.
But after Szczesny thwarted Rooney and Sturridge, Gerrard latched onto a pass from substitute Jack Wilshere and poked the ball over Szczesny to seal the all-important win.