Indyplus update: England v Montenegro


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The Independent Online

When the big games come around, the high-tension occasions when it must all come together every manager stands and falls by his decisions. By those exacting standards, last night was a good night for Roy Hodgson.

The man who has long been characterised as the arch-conservative, let Andros Townsend loose on Wembley and was rewarded with a match-winning performance from Tottenham’s 22-year-old winger. It might not have been much of a risk against a depleted Montenegro team playing at Wembley, but it was a game-defining call and he got it right when the stakes for World Cup qualification were very high indeed.

Townsend made England’s first goal and scored a brilliant third to seal the win, all of this in the second half after Hodgson’s team had picked away at a solid, well-organised opponent who gave everything not to concede before the break. It was a game that required them to stay calm and they were rewarded for doing so – now all that remains is to reconvene on Tuesday and do the same to Poland.

If last night was tense then Tuesday will be even more so. The Poles were beaten by Ukraine last night, which means that England are assured of a play-off place but have to win on Tuesday to qualify as winners of group H. Hodgson said that he watched the first half of the Poland game , played in the last afternoon, and was impressed by the Polish performance. This has been an arduous journey for manager and team and they cannot afford to relax yet.

The game will come four days’ short of the 40th anniversary of the night that Jan Tomaszewski kept England at bay in the final qualifier for the 1974 World Cup finals and, in denying England a place, precipitated the end of Alf Ramsey’s time in charge of the team. In October 1973, the draw was enough for Poland to qualify – this time their hopes of a place in Brazil are over.

This was England’s best performance yet in qualifying, a victory that owed a lot to their patience and a refusal to panic up until the point when Townsend’s running made the first goal for Wayne Rooney. Two goals ahead through Branko Boskovic’s own goal, they might have wobbled when Dejan Damjanovic made the score 2-1 on 71 minutes but, all said, this was a composed England performance.

Later, Hodgson denied that he had shown his cavalier streak by selecting Townsend, arguing that he had given plenty of young players like Danny Welbeck and Raheem Sterling a chance, and would have played Daniel Sturridge, a starter and a goalscorer last night, much more often but for injury. He has a point, but even so, picking Townsend was not a call that everyone would have made.

In addition to Townsend on the right-wing, Hodgson selected a further attacking three of Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were selected in preference to Michael Carrick and Jack Wilshere, both late substitutes. The booking of Kyle Walker in the second half – a soft decision which means he is suspended for Tuesday night – was the only downbeat note on the night.

It was Townsend who was behind England’s early energy in attack, with a buoyant Wembley crowd behind England. They came at Montenegro with some pace. On the left side, Leighton Baines took up a position well advanced in the opposition’s half and was an important outlet for the England midfield as they tried to build attacks.

It looked like it might come together for England in those early stages if, for nothing else, through sheer force of will. They looked like a dangerous team then. Rooney had a shot deflected wide, Sturridge shot just over the bar. There was a will to get the job done quickly. Montenegro might have collapsed in those early stages but it was to their credit they held strong.

An early goal would have left the away side stretched but they never lost their shape. Nominally they played a 4-4-2 system with Stevan Jovetic and Damjanovic in attack although those two dropped deeper when they were without the ball, which was a lot of the time. They ceded a lot of space in their own half, and they gave up a lot on the wings but in the centre they were tight and well-organised.

The best of England’s chances came when they managed to get beyond Montenegro. Baines made it to the byline on 23 minutes and cut the ball back to Welbeck whose shot was saved. Rooney hit the side-netting after Townsend broke down the right on 40 minutes and had his shot blocked. But for the most part there were a lot of efforts from long range, the best of which in the first half came from the right boot of Gerrard.

England were due a breakthrough but it felt like it might take a lot longer to come than it eventually did. Three minutes into the new half, Townsend opened up Montenegro with a long run down the right that turned the away side’s back four and exposed their weaknesses.

His cross was not ideal but it put the centre-half Ivan Kecojevic under pressure and his weak clearing header only went as far as Welbeck on the edge of the area. When Welbeck’s shot was parried by Vukasin Poleksic it required one touch from Rooney to steady himself and another to bury it.

There is no-one Hodgson would rather have had in position with the ball loose in the box and the goal vulnerable than Rooney for whom this was goal No 37. On the bench, Hodgson clenched both fists and jumped and turned. Yes, he was finding it all a bit stressful – and it showed.

Although it released some of the tension it was not until England had a second goal that they could calm a little. In the interim, Joe Hart made an excellent save from a header glanced in by Damjanovic – the first time he had really been tested in that way. The England goalkeeper had just the kind of solid, quite night that he would have wanted.

England’s second came on 62 minutes when Sturridge stole possession and fed Welbeck down the left. His cutback looked ambitious given the flood of Montenegro players coming back into the area but it was one of them, Boskovic who stumbled into the ball and succeeded in steering it past his own goalkeeper.

Even when Jovetic hit the bar minutes later, England still looked comfortable. The chances kept coming. Gerrard somehow failed to get the ball past Vukasin Poleksic from a Rooney cut-back. Welbeck hit a loose ball straight at the Montenegro goalkeeper and then, with less than 20 minutes left, the away side scored from nowhere. The substitute’s Fatos Beqiraj’s hopeful shot was nicely re-directed past Hart by Damjanovic.

It was hard on England and Townsend’s goal seven minutes later felt well-deserved. He had been threatening to do it all game – and finally he unleashed with his right foot from 25 yards, his shot clipping the inside of Poleksic’s post before finding the net. For Hodgson, who substituted the player immediately, it was the culmination of a plan well executed. 

In injury time, Sturridge won a penalty at the expense of the lamentable Kecojevic and scored to give England four goals. It has been a long and sometimes painful journey through qualification, now Hodgson will believe his team can finish the job.

England (4-2-3-1): Hart; Walker, Cahill, Jagielka, Baines; Gerrard, Lampard; Townsend, Rooney, Welbeck; Sturridge.

Montenegro (4-4-1-1): Poleksic; Pavicevic, Savic, Kecojevic, Jovanovic; Boskovic, Drincic, Zverotic, Volkov; Jovetic; Damjanovic.

Booked: England Walker Montenegro Pavicevic, Volkov

Rating: 7

Man of the match: Townsend

Attendance: 83,807

Referee: A U Mallenco (Spain)