England lose their way in second half
Montenegro claim a point as England let promising start slip away
Wayne Rooney scores England’s goal against Montenegro. Photoraph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Montenegro 1 England 1: It was a night, ultimately, of disappointment for England bearing in mind their supremacy in the first half and the potentially serious ramifications of what happened when they lost their way after the interval. It was some turnaround as a confident side, buoyed by Wayne Rooney's sixth-minute header and playing some exuberant football, slipped back into old ways and lost the chance to take a position of strength in the contest to qualify for Brazil 2014 without being spared the ordeal of a possible playoff.
Roy Hodgson's team had been in utter control for the opening half, looking good to leapfrog Montenegro and move a point clear in Group H with three of their last four games to come at Wembley. What happened after that was a reminder of this team's vulnerabilities.
It was bordering on a full-on loss of nerve and England were indebted to Joe Hart's goalkeeping until the equaliser turned in by the substitute Dejan Damjanovic after 77 minutes. By the end, they should probably be grateful to be spared even more trauma such was the lopsided nature of the second half.
They began the game as if affronted by the suggestion they might somehow be intimidated by the noise inside the impassioned City Stadium. The din was pretty much relentless. It was tribal, co-ordinated and accompanied by firecrackers, and it is true that a lesser team might have wilted. Yet Hodgson's players had the collective indifference of seen-it-all-before travellers.
Within two minutes Rooney had floated an exquisite chip over Mladen Bozovic only for the ball to come back off a post. Steven Gerrard barely flinched when he stood in front of the more boisterous Montenegro supporters, waiting to take a corner, with various objects being thrown from the crowd. Glen Johnson's left-foot effort was tipped over and it was from the follow-up corner, this time from the other side, that Rooney scored the early goal.
It was so simple in its creation that it made you wonder whether all the wariness that had accompanied England into this Balkan state had been slightly misplaced. Gerrard simply swung the ball into the penalty area and Rooney braced his neck muscles, twisted his body and headed it past Bozovic. Not a single defender had gone for the ball and the sheer straightforwardness of it all left the clear sense this would not be the only time they would be vulnerable.
Rooney, in particular, had started the night as though determined to leave his imprint all over it. Sometimes with the Manchester United man you can just tell that he is in the mood. It's his body language, the bristling determination to make things happen. He was a formidable opponent.
The one thing England could not do was silence the locals. Yet the game had begun just about as well as Hodgson's side could have dared imagine. They were passing the ball well, untroubled by the difficult surface, playing with the kind of composure that should really have brought more goals before half-time. Danny Welbeck was full of hard running, stretching those long legs, and the new, experimental defence was rarely troubled.
More than anything, the structure of the team looked good. Hodgson should be encouraged to discard 4-4-2 pretty much for good. This new system - sometimes 4-2-3-1, sometimes 4-3-3 - is far more fluid when the players are demonstrating this level of confidence and have licence to interchange positions. Gerrard's midfield partnership with Michael Carrick had a nice balance about it. Tom Cleverley demonstrated the simple yet effective knack of playing the ball then moving into a better position to take it back. James Milner played with width and penetration and Rooney was a constant menace.
These were the moments when Branko Brnovic was reminded England have enough refinement not to be confused with a team whose first thought is to hit it long. At the same time, there were clear signs his own players were rattled. Midway through the opening half Vladimir Volkov tried to launch a long throw into the penalty area and suffered the professional indignity of being penalised for his illegal technique. Brnovic was not particularly happy either. His water-bottle was launched on to the pitch at one point, bringing a stern reprimand from the fourth official.
As for Stefan Savic, he was reminding us why his time at Manchester City had been so brief. Montenegro's right-back was fortunate not to concede a penalty in the incident that led to Welbeck being booked for diving just before half-time.
It was an unjust decision from the Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, and that let-off for Montenegro plainly had a bearing on what happened at the start of the second half. For the first time they started to press their opponents and pin them back. Volkov headed one chance into the side-netting and suddenly Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic were becoming more prominently involved.
England, without any warning, had lost their composure, making basic errors and forgetting how to take care of the ball.
Hart was terrific on the night but a side cannot defend this generously and hope to get away it. Damjanovic turned the ball in from a goalmouth scramble incorporating an instinctive save from the goalkeeper and a follow-up block from Joleon Lescott. England really had only themselves to blame. Guardian Service