England revisit bad old days of World Cup on frustrating night
England 0 Montenegro 0
Wednesday 13 October 2010
For those at Wembley last night who experienced a disconcerting flashback to a similarly traumatic night for Fabio Capello's team against Algeria in Cape Town just 120 days previous the only consolation was that they were not alone in their suffering.
Capello has done his best to convince us that the bleak old days of South Africa can be put behind this England team but they were back last night at Wembley. It was the goalless draw with Algeria that precipitated the beginning of the slow death of England's hopes at the World Cup and that same inability to break down mediocre opponents was evident last night.
The Montenegro team that England faced last night was well-organised, physical and occasionally cynical, but they were not unbeatable. International football, especially in qualification for big tournaments, is about breaking down the smaller nations who come in faint hope of a single point and, as many times as they face them, England seem incapable of cracking the formula to unlock these teams consistently.
If Capello was interested in England's recent past he would know that Steve McClaren's doomed Euro 2008 qualification campaign also began with two wins that were followed by a goalless draw with Macedonia at Old Trafford four years ago. Then it looked like England would be well capable of getting the results to see them through but in the end those two dropped points proved crucial.
This time the instinct is also that, along the way, Capello's team will do enough to get to the 2012 tournament, although their path is just a bit rockier now. But last night was about more than just the result and its consequences for qualification, it was about the mood around this team which was only just in the slow process of recovery from this summer.
It starts with Wayne Rooney who again demonstrated that he is badly out of touch with the form that was inspiration to England this time last year. He had two chances to win the game in the second half, both of which were saved brilliantly by the game's outstanding player, the Montenegro goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic.
There was also a moment in the 53rd minute when Rooney sprinted 60 yards after an opponent in one of those red mists that are supposed to be a feature of his past but always surface when things are going against him. Most of Wembley watched through their fingers as he charged after Elsad Zverotic. The subsequent booking was, in the circumstances, the best-case scenario.
It was the first time that England had ever failed to score at a game at the new Wembley since it opened its doors three years ago and given that they have played Germany and Brazil here, that says something about how the night unfolded. It was a siege against a Montenegro team who, against all the odds, might even have won with a shot from Milan Jovanovic that struck Joe Hart's bar in the 83rd minute.
In mitigation there was one clear penalty – when Jovanovic handled the ball in the 78th minute – which should have been given by the German referee Manuel Grafe but was inexplicably turned down. England have had rotten luck with referees of late but this was just a detail in the margins of a much more disturbing story.
There were other concerns too, not least the performance of Gareth Barry who is an accomplished international but struggled to pass the ball with any effectiveness last night. Adam Johnson looked like he might be England's cutting edge in the first half but he faded as did Ashley Young, who was guilty of a blatant dive in the Montenegro area that got him booked.
For Capello, a long, lonely winter beckons. His team play France next month and Argentina in February but it is not until England play Wales in Cardiff on 26 March that the manager will be able to do anything about the standings in Group G. Montenegro lead England by three points having played one extra game and the match against them in Podgorica just less than a year from now could be important.
For that game Montenegro might even have their best player, the Roma forward Mirko Vucinic who was injured against Switzerland last week and absent last night. Without him, Montenegro dropped even deeper behind the ball which denied England the space behind their centre-backs.
For much of the game, Steven Gerrard played in the quarter-back position, picking up possession deep and trying to open Montenegro with long balls from defence. In the first three minutes his ball to Peter Crouch almost resulted in a goal but was just too long. Had it gone in, Montenegro's gameplan would have been undone.
There was another sweetly struck long ball for Young with the outside of Gerrard's right foot that was fractionally too long. Crouch should have done better with a header from Glen Johnson's cross. On the right side, Adam Johnson's left foot was good enough to take him around the outside of his full-back to get in good crossing positions but his delivery was never quite on the mark.
The second half was enlivened by the increasingly militant stop-them-at-all-costs attitude of the Montenegro players who earned five bookings by the end. Kevin Davies came on for Crouch and it was after that Rooney had his two chances. The first was a ball dinked into him by Gerrard that goalkeeper Bozovic saved. Later, when the ball spilled in the box, Rooney's snap shot with the outside of his right foot was also saved.
Young's dive over the leg of Miodrag Dzudovic and Rooney's increasingly erratic behaviour were signs of a team that knew there would be boos for them at the end of the match. This was never going to be the pushover that some might have anticipated but there is a set of fans in Wembley who feel that they have watched this plot before. And they are growing sick of it.
England (4-4-1-1): Hart (Manchester City); G Johnson (Liverpool), Ferdinand (Manchester United), Lescott (Manchester City), A Cole (Chelsea); A Johnson (Manchester City), Gerrard (Liverpool), Barry (Manchester City), A Young (Aston Villa); Rooney (Manchester United); Crouch (Tottenham). Substitutes used Davies (Bolton) for Crouch, 70; Wright-Phillips (Manchester City) for Young, 74.
Montenegro (4-4-2): Bozovic (Videoton); Savic (Partizan Belgrade), Dzudovic (Spartak Nalchik), Basa (Lokomotiv Moscow), Jovanovic (Spartak Nalchik); Vukcevic (Sporting Lisbon), Zverotic (FC Luzern), Novakovic (Amkar Perm), Boskovic (DC United); Pekovic (Greuther), Djalovic (Rijeka). Substitutes used Kascelan (Jagiellonia Bialystok) for Novakovic, 62; Andrija Delibasic (Rayo Vallecano) for Djalovic, 77; Fatos Beciraj (Dinamo Zagreb) for Boskovic, 83.
Man of the match Bozovic.
Referee M Grafe (Germany).
Match rating 3/10.
Man for man marking
May have blotted copybook with wild night out in Marbella last week but this was a quieter evening altogether. 6/10
One good cross for Crouch, after which little was seen of him going forward. Caught out badly near the end. 5
Solid on return in fourth different partnership in four games. Djalovic proved less trouble than Vucinic might have. 7
Comfortable alongside Ferdinand in his second successive start for his country. Won some good headers. 7
Frustrating night for his 86th cap, equalling Kenny Sansom's record, though still no goal (Sansom did get one). 6
Tricky footwork down the right and one dangerous free-kick wide. Less effective in second half. 7
After one fine through ball for Crouch early on, the Liverpool man sat very deep until the second half. 7
Despite having little to do defensively, the City man's passing was as poor as in some recent games. Booked. 5
Needing a big game to stake his claim, found it hard against a teenage full-back. Poor set-pieces. Booked and replaced. 6
Although he worked touchingly hard in search of some form, found little going for him. Booked for a foul. 6
Given a first start since May thanks to Darren Bent's injury, wasted one headed chance and was substituted. 6
Kevin Davies (for Crouch, 70): On to cheers for a debut at 33, the Bolton striker offered a physical presence without threatening a goal. Booked. 5
Shaun Wright-Phillips (for Young, 74): Sent on to partner club-mate Adam Johnson, he flitted in from the left wing to no avail. 5
Substitutes not used Foster (gk), Warnock, Cahill, Wilshere, Downing.
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