Just imagine the consequences of a different outcome at Wembley last Tuesday night. Had Robert Lewandowski accepted that early chance, he might have condemned England to a play‑off against more formidable opposition: France, say, or Sweden, who scored four goals against Roy Hodgson's team less than a year ago. A passage to Brazil would have looked uncertain, to say the least.
At that point we might have found ourselves peering through a different lens at the events that took place a couple of hours earlier at Portman Road, where Gareth Southgate's Under-21s side delivered an impressively fluent 5-0 victory over Lithuania in their qualifying match for the European Championship. The call would have been immediate: out with the old, in with the new.
It was the demand heard after the past two World Cups. In 2006, as bags were packed in Baden-Baden, some of us thought the future might belong to the generation represented by the squad's teenagers: Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott, untainted by failure. Four years later, in the wake of humiliation in South Africa, the names for the future included Josh McEachran and Jack Rodwell, who have not made the expected progress, and Jack Wilshere, who has.
The seniors' success against Poland this week stifled such calls – at least until their performance at next summer's finals can be analysed. Which means that a calmer look can be taken at the next generation, and at their prospects of making a contribution to the Brazilian campaign.
From the matches in Ipswich and north London, it could be inferred that both teams were set up to play the same way: two centre‑backs, two dynamic full-backs, two central midfielders with licence to move forward while the other stayed back, two fast wingers, and a No10 playing off a central striker. Nothing revolutionary there, but plenty in the individual attributes and performances to represent a measurable evolution, albeit against limited opponents.
"We're certainly linking closely with Roy," Southgate told me on Friday. "I sit with him when we're picking our players so that the movement between the squads is fluid and there are no misunderstandings. And we're in agreement in terms of the way we want our teams to play. There are one or two principles of movement in possession that he put in place when he took charge of the Under-21s in August.
"These have been matches we've been expected to win, and they've given us a chance to work on controlled possession and the desire to win the ball back as quickly as possible. We've been averaging well over 550 passes per match and on Tuesday I think it was over 700. They seem to be enjoying it."
It was easy to watch the rerun of Tuesday's match and imagine almost any of Southgate's players replacing his counterpart in the senior side: Jack Robinson for Leighton Baines, the very impressive James Ward-Prowse for Steven Gerrard, Wilfried Zaha for Danny Welbeck, or Saido Berahino for Daniel Sturridge. And in Ravel Morrison they have a player who looks capable of succeeding Wayne Rooney. Both of them played the conventional No10 role on Tuesday, looking equally comfortable with the scope it gave them. And both scored goals, which is an important facet of a No10's game.
On the basis of the past week Morrison could be worth taking to Brazil as a reserve, along with Berahino and perhaps Zaha. The concern about the West Ham man remains the uncertainty of his temperament, which led him to get involved in a scuffle with Zaha, who accused him of hogging possession. It would be unwise for Morrison, however gifted he may be, to allow such a thought to fester in the minds of team-mates equally keen to make an impression.
Hodgson can also look at Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley, already awarded senior caps, while keeping an eye on Jesse Lingard, Harry Kane and Nick Powell, who were members of Southgate's squad, and at McEachran, who is making his way back. He might even have found himself murmuring in agreement when he read José Mourinho's suggestion that England now have "more than enough players to make a good national side", voiced in these pages yesterday.
"We're conscious that when we meet other teams we might have to look at different systems," Southgate said. The Under-21s have two more qualifying matches in November, against Finland in Milton Keynes and San Marino in Shrewsbury. Next summer he plans to take most of them to the annual Under-20 tournament in Toulon, to give them a chance to meet opponents from South and Central America.
To this observer, he still faces the problem that confronted Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello, one that is fundamental to the ability of the team to reach the later stages of major tournaments: the absence of a true holding midfield player of real international quality.
Back in 2006, it was only in the third and crucial match of the group stage, against Sweden, that Eriksson gave the role to Owen Hargreaves, who went on to be England's player of the campaign. Since injury truncated his career, no real replacement has been found – and no combination of Gerrard, Wilshere, Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick can provide a completely satisfying answer.
All four have their attributes, but none has the defensive quality that would be necessary were England to come up against sterner opponents than they faced in Group H. Simply sitting deep is not enough, and I remember Uli Hoeness's astonishment at the midfield alignment with which Eriksson began the 2006 finals.
"How can you have Joe Cole, Beckham, Gerrard and Lampard?" he said. "Everyone wants to run forward." He understood the imperatives, as did Hargreaves, who had worked under him at Bayern Munich.
At one time Rodwell looked like he might provide the answer. Then it was Phil Jones's turn. After Tom Carroll left the field with an injury early on at Portman Road, Nat Chalobah came out of defence to play alongside Ward-Prowse. Southgate mentions Will Hughes as another candidate for the position. "I don't think it's just about a robust tackler," he says. "That's outdated."
Maybe so, but someone has to screen the defence against opponents of the highest class, securing the platform from which a Morrison can slip past three defenders and dummy the goalkeeper. For all the clear signs of youthful promise and talent in depth, England will do no more than make up the numbers in Brazil if that lesson has not been taken to heart.