Fabio Capello last night did his best to defend a dismal goalless draw against Montenegro, a side ranked 40th in the world, which saw his England side leave the field to muffled boos.
England complained bitterly about Milan Jovanovic's 78th-minute handball in the England area of which captain Rio Ferdinand said the defender "might as well have caught it and put it under his shirt" and Capello also questioned the physicality of Zlatko Kranjcar's side. But within minutes of the handball offence, which ought to have have been penalised, Jovanovic hammered a shot against the bar. England's anaemic display recalled the goalless draw against Algeria in Cape Town on 18 June.
Capello, whose next competitive test comes with the intensity of a trip to Cardiff to face Wales on 26 March, denied that the England job was ruining his managerial reputation. "Absolutely not, because this is my job," he said. "It is one game. When we finish qualification, that will tell you something. Look, we created four or five clear chances to score goals. We missed them, shot wide, or the keeper saved them."
Of the penalty appeal, which the linesmen appeared to have a good view of, he said: "I don't like to speak about them. You saw what really happened, no? It's not important."
The unpredictable nature of the qualifiers was highlighted by Scotland putting in the finest performance of the home nations, coming back from 2-0 down against Spain at Hampden Park only to concede a third to lose 3-2. It was enough to take a little of the pressure off manager Craig Levein. But Brian Flynn's hopes of retaining the Wales position permanently were dealt a heavy blow with a 4-1 defeat in Switzerland.
Questioning the rugged approach of Montenegro, Capello said: "I don't like to speak about referees. Only there were five subs, twice the physio was on and only three minutes [added time] was not correct." He also reiterated that he does not wish he had walked away after the World Cup "What? No. I'm a fighter. It's one game. We have to play five games more. I think we are a good team. This is one game. This is usually what happens when you play, for me, not so normal a game."
In the manager's defence, England have a game in hand on Montenegro, whom they trail by three points and the defensive qualities of the visitors were self-evident, with goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic making several superb saves. But nothing can mask England's failure to fashion opportunities, in part a result of Wayne Rooney's continued struggle for form, against a nation with a population of 672,000 which did not even have an international side before 2007.
Ferdinand was a little more candid about the result and admitted: "We should be winning games like that." He added: "We didn't quite manage to put the ball in the net. Maybe we tried too hard to please the manager and the fans but we didn't concede and were solid as a team from front to back."
Kranjcar will hope that the peculiar nature of the Wales games – the Welsh FA have been considering playing the home fixture at Cardiff City's ground and foregoing maximum income to create a more intimidating atmosphere – might further impede Capello's side. That might mean England travelling to Montenegro in October next year in need of a win in their last game to take the group and secure automatic qualification. "The next game against England is a year away, so we hope we have a full-strength team for that match," said Kranjcar, who was without his star player Mirko Vucinic.
Capello, who opted to give Kevin Davies his first England experience, exhorted his side to up their tempo during the half-time interval. "At the moment, this [Montenegro] is a wonderful team," he concluded. "A really compact team which works a lot, runs a lot. The goalkeeper was Montenegro's best player and we have to accept this. This is football. It's not boxing where you win by punching the opponent more."