UEFA Group 2
Despite their failure at the European Championships, no one would probably look beyond England for qualifying from Group 2, although they would face some stiff competition from both Sweden, who had performed well during the qualifiers for Euro ’88, and Poland, who despite having had to replace another very good generation of footballers, were looking to make amends for a relatively indifferent qualification showing last time around. Poland had reached each of the last four World Cups, so there was nothing wrong with their recent history. And Albania? Well, generally understood as a very isolated country of which little is known throughout Western Europe, they had never even been close to ever qualifying for a major tournament. Surely it would be no different this time around.
Match 1: England 0-0 Sweden
19 October 1988, Wembley Stadium (London)
After the disappointment at the summer’s European Championships, it was time for England to look to the start of the World Cup qualification. Manager Robson had been much maligned, and confidence was surely not at an all-time high throughout the squad. The Swedish had been home sitters, and could prepare for this fixture well aware that a point would be an excellent return in this group where only the winners would be guaranteed passage through. With Beardsley, Waddle, Lineker and Barnes all in the starting XI, it looked quite an attacking select for the hosts, though they would fail to break down the Swedish rearguard, which was so prolifically led by their captain Glenn Hysén. His performance almost beggared belief; it was simply stunning. The centre-back didn’t set a foot wrong all night. 0-0 the outcome.
Match 2: Poland 1-0 Albania
19 October 1988, Stadion Śląski (Chorzów)
Poland would want to get their campaign up and running through a secure home win. They were facing off against minnows Albania, and though Polish football was still in the process of replacing their former greats, they still had some decent footballers in their ranks. They had a reasonably young squad, where veterans were libero Wójcicki and forward Smolarek, both obviously based abroad. Young midfield playmaker Rudy was an interesting prospect, and at the back, big centre-back Łukasik could be one to watch. As for the visitors, they had travelled with a squad of 15 (16 allowed), and no player was older than captain Minga (29). Libero Hodja, young defender Lekbello and midfield dynamo Demollari were some of their players to look out for. The game only had the one goal, which only occured 12 minutes from time, as (Krzysztof) Warzycha shot home low. Despite two points, it was perhaps not quite what Poland had been hoping for.
Match 3: Albania 1-2 Sweden
5 November 1988, Stadiumi Qemal Stafa (Tirana)
After their slender loss in Poland, it was time for Albania to introduce themselves to their own audience. Visiting Sweden had grabbed an excellent point whilst visiting London last time around, so the hosts must have been under no illusions as to how difficult their task was going to be. They had brought in Zmijani for the right-back position, whilst the Swedish had started with Ekström up front; those were the only changes in either starting eleven. In difficult conditions, with the pitch being soaked and very uneven, the hosts move in front just after the half hour, when inspired lone striker Shehu runs on to a through pass and finishes in style. Sweden make a second half substitution which will change the reflection of the game in bringing forward Holmqvist on for the unimpressive Prytz. They then score two quick-fire goals to return home with both points.
Match 4: Albania 0-2 England
8 March 1989, Stadiumi Qemal Stafa (Tirana)
Having showed plenty of guts against Sweden in their most recent qualifier, the Albanians had still not got a point to show for their efforts. They must have been looking forward to the visit of England, well aware that big nations have struggled to win in Tirana on previous occasions. Manager Rreli line up with the same eleven as last time out, and though they battle well, they are generally second best to an English select which has the class that the home side are missing. Robson excels in midfield, and Barnes nets just after the quarter of an hour mark. The captain himself then makes sure to exceed the English advantage after the break, and though they do not fire on all cylinders, England are too good for a valiant home side, for whom in particular young defender Lekbello impresses in a man-marking capacity.
Match 5: England 5-0 Albania
26 April 1989, Wembley Stadium (London)
Having overcome the Albanians away last month, England knew what they were up against this time around, and they took their opponents very seriously, putting on a show for their Wembley supporters. They were without one of the goalscorers in Tirana, as Liverpool winger Barnes had not wanted to play so shortly after the horrific Hillsborough tragedy. Football-wise, they did not miss him. An early Lineker goal, his first of the qualification, set them on their way, and Albania’s stand-in ‘keeper, 17 year (!) young Nallbani, had his work cut out throughout. He was one of his team’s stars, and never let the occasion get to him. Midfielder Demollari felt angered to have what seemed a good goal ruled out just before half time, the decision probably being an offside against team mate Bubeqi. It was a visiting select without vital performers such as Josa and captain Minga, in addition to regular custodian Mersini.
Match 6: Sweden 2-1 Poland
7 May 1989, Råsunda (Stockholm)
Sweden struggle to break down Poland, but are victorious thanks to set-pieces.
Match 7: England 3-0 Poland
3 June 1989, Wembley Stadium (London)
Poland had proved a thorn in the English’ side before, and manager Robson had surely wanted to avoid a re-run of the 1-1 scoreline back in ’73, when the Polish had advanced through to the 1974 World Cup on England’s behalf. Having lost in Sweden a month before, Poland were more or less pushed against the wall to get a result, but though they were just a goal down at the break, they had in truth been given a footballing lesson by the dominant hosts. The visitors had changed two players since that Stockholm defeat, with both Soczyński and Dziekanowski absent from the eleven, while England had relegated Rocastle to the bench following Barnes’ availability. Poland showed greater battle in the second half, though could not really threaten Shilton, and once Barnes had added a second, it was game over.
Match 8: Sweden 0-0 England
6 September 1989, Råsunda (Stockholm)
Group 2 seemed little more than a battle between these two for the top spot now, with Poland suffering successive away defeats against both. After they had played out that goalless draw in the qualification opener, England had taken charge of the group with three straight wins, while the Swedish meanwhile had won against both of the group’s other two. However, they had looked fragile and vulnerable during two summer friendlies, conceding no less than ten (!) goals to Denmark and France. The visitors, whose fans were doing their utmost to tarnish England’s reputation abroad even further, were without injured captain Robson, bringing in McMahon as his replacement alongside Webb in the centre of the pitch. It was a tough battle, best exemplified by the bloody shirt of England centre-half Butcher, who had picked up a head wound when he’d headed into Ekström in the first half. England perhaps slightly on top, but a point each was alright.
Match 9: Sweden 3-1 Albania
8 October 1989, Råsunda (Stockholm)
A win would lift Sweden to eight points and joint top spot with England, although they were sporting a vastly inferior goal difference. Barring a win by eight clear goals or more, England were not going to be immediately overtaken. Both would then have to travel to Poland. Albania had lost all four of their matches, with just the goal that they’d scored in the home tie against the Swedish to show for. The hosts had two new wide players in Gren and Limpar for this one, while Albania had called upon the experience of 30 year old Flamurtari defender Taho for his first appearance during these qualifiers. The away side had the perfect start when they converted an early penalty, but failed to build on it, and since saw the hosts score three times, with the latter coming in injury time.
Match 10: Poland 0-0 England
11 October 1989, Stadion Śląski (Chorzów)
A draw would suffice for the English to make it through to the World Cup, as they knew that the runners-up in Group 1 could not match their (then) nine points tally. In light of that, it was understandable that the visitors didn’t go all out attack. Had qualification hinged on this match, we might have seen a more attack-minded England team. Even Poland stood a minor chance to qualify still, even if their hopes were little more than theory. New manager Strejlau had seemed to reinvigorate the Polish, and he’d done some team reshuffling along the way. Kaczmarek, Czachowski and Nawrocki were making their first appearances of the qualification. For the visitors, Barnes was out injured, something which meant a recall to the starting line-up for Rocastle. Poland were dominant before the break, when they tested Shilton a few times, though in the second half things evened out, and the tie finished in a stalemate, thus ending Polish qualification hopes at the same time as England guaranteed their passage through to Italia ’90.
Match 11: Poland 0-2 Sweden
25 October 1989, Stadion Śląski (Chorzów)
Could Sweden do like England and secure World Cup qualification in Chorzów? A Poland win would most likely leave Sweden out, while a point would suffice to qualify as one of the two best runners-up from the groups of four. Even better: A win would see them finish atop the group. Those were the permutations. Poland’s starting eleven was identical to the one against England. Sweden manager Nordin had again changed his wide men around, with Engqvist and (Joakim) Nilsson coming back in. A 35 minute (Peter) Larsson penalty set them on their way, and in the second half they made sure of their first place finish as Ekström got his second of the qualification. Having missed out on ’82 and ’86, Sweden were once again back on the grandest stage of them all.
Match 12: Albania 1-2 Poland
15 November, Stadiumi Qemal Stafa (Tirana)
The group’s final game had little significance apart from cosmetics, though Poland were looking to inflict a sixth straight defeat on the Albanians, who had given a decent account of themselves in several matches nevertheless. Especially at home were they a fiery opponent. The draw against England at home apart, Poland had failed to take points off the top two. Despite the early promise in Strejlau’s tenure, they could do with rounding their disappointing campaign off on a light note. Albania were without key players in ‘keeper Mersini, defenders Lekbello and Gega, as well as midfield wide man Millo. Poland had Kubicki and Szewczyk coming in. They would ultimately triumph courtesy of Ziober’s winning goal six minutes from time. Albania’s Kushta had equalized after Tarasiewicz’ opener on the stroke of half-time.
Even if it had upset the bookmakers, it should not have come as a giant surprise that Sweden pipped England for the top berth. They had done well in their previous qualifiers, and brought the confidence that they had gained from that qualifying tournament into this. They gained a very creditable draw in London in the group opener, and this set them on their way to pole position, first and foremost thanks to an unreal individual performance by centre half Hysén. Sweden dealt swiftly with both Albania and Poland, and gained maximum points from these four matches, something which their main group rival could not copy. Despite a couple of friendly set-backs during the summer of ’89, Sweden could clinch the top spot with an impressive 2-0 win in Chorzów late in October.
England did not want to miss out on World Cup qualification, something which would see them participate for a third successive time, but they had to be content with a scoreless draw in their home opener against what was deemed to be their main rival in the fight for the group’s top spot. They boasted some of international football’s strongest attacking names in Lineker, Beardsley, Barnes and Waddle, but somehow manager Bobby Robson struggled to make them shine together. Half of their ten goals came in the home game against rock bottom Albania, another three as they had wiped Poland off the Wembley turf, whilst they had to rely on ageing goalkeeper Shilton for their key 0-0 in Poland, a result which definitely kept the Polish out of the reckoning. It must be said that not conceding during six qualifiers was a fine achievement, even if there had been times when they had come close to breaching that statistics.
Poland’s campaign had been an odd one. They had looked alright when winning against Albania in their opener, albeit only by a single goal, but successive away defeats in Sweden and in England saw the Polish FA decide to relieve manager Łazarek of his duties and replace him with the experienced Strejlau. He brought optimism along with him, but as they could not get that elusive win in their home tie with England in the autumn, their campaign was in practice over, and they were then deservedly beaten at home by the Swedish in a lacklustre performance. The change in manager also brought along a switch in personnel, as a good few players only played the first three matches under the previous manager, with a few new ones coming to the fore under Strejlau. The final win in Albania was just academic. Polish football could not make a fifth successive World Cup entry.
Little had been expected of Albania other than them giving a decent account of themselves in their three matches on home soil. And it has to be said that they did, even if they lost all three, as well as their three expected away defeats. They had managed to keep the score down in their opening tie in Poland, and had gone ahead in their subsequent match at home to Sweden. However, two quick Swedish second half goals brought an end to their resistance, and shortly after successive defeats home and away to England followed. There were some decent individual campaigns, most notably by sweeper Hodja, but goalkeeper Mersini, central defender Lekbello and midfielder Demollari also came away from the qualification with their integrity very much intact, and then striker Kushta had come in for the final two matches and notched a goal in each of them. Their failed attempt to gain at least a point from six qualification matches brought an end to manager Rreli’s second national team tenure.
Total number of players used: 92
Total number of players including unused substitutes: 114
Ever-presents (540 mins): 9 (Shilton, Butcher, Pearce, T Ravelli, Ljung, Thern, Hodja, Jera, Demollari)
Leading goalscorer: Six players with two goals each
Yellow/red cards: 18/0
Sokol Kushta (Albania), John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Gary Lineker (England), Ryszard Tarasiewicz (Poland), Johnny Ekström (Sweden)
Ylli Shehu (Albania), Paul Gascoigne, Bryan Robson, Chris Waddle, Neil Webb (England), Krzysztof Warzycha, Jacek Ziober (Poland), Leif Engqvist, Hans Holmqvist, Klas Ingesson, Niclas Larsson, Peter Larsson (pen), Roger Ljung, Mats Magnusson (Sweden)
Top 20 ratings list
1 Glenn Hysén (Sweden) 7,48 (5 apps)
2 Bryan Robson (England) 7,26 (5 apps)
3 Chris Waddle (England) 7,20 (6 apps)
4 Des Walker (England) 7,16 (6 apps)
5 Neil Webb (England) 7,06 (5 apps)
6 Jonas Thern (Sweden) 7,05 (6 apps)
7 Stuart Pearce (England) 7,01 (6 apps)
8 Mats Magnusson (Sweden) 6,97 (4 apps)
9 Roger Ljung (Sweden) 6,95 (6 apps)
10 Terry Butcher (England) 6,93 (6 apps)
11 David Rocastle (England) 6,93 (3 apps)
12 Peter Shilton (England) 6,91 (6 apps)
12 Gary Lineker (England) 6,91 (6 apps)
12 Roland Nilsson (Sweden) 6,91 (6 apps)
15 Gary Stevens (England) 6,90 (6 apps)
16 Robert Warzycha (Poland) 6,90 (3 apps)
17 Halim Mersini (Albania) 6,87 (4 apps)
18 Thomas Ravelli (Sweden) 6,86 (6 apps)
19 Waldemar Matysik (Poland) 6,83 (3 apps)
20 John Barnes (England) 6,82 (4 apps)