There is something imperfect at the heart of this England team, and although they escaped Podgorica with their World Cup qualification campaign intact last night, you can see that these players know it too. A generation of players that cruised to the last two tournaments under Fabio Capello is losing its old powers to cope when the pressure is really on.
They really could have lost this game after being utterly dominated by Montenegro in the second half. There were toilet rolls thrown on the pitch, an aggressive Montenegrin fan leader with a loudhailer who sounded like the Cookie Monster and the acrid whiff of smoke flares. But you did not need to sniff the breeze to detect England’s fear, it was there in every uncertain touch.
They had taken the lead through Wayne Rooney in the first half and should really have finished the game off before half-time as the home team failed to get their act together. But the leaders of Group H, still by two points from England, whipped up a storm after the break and led by their captain Mirko Vucinic they scored a deserved equaliser through substitute Dejan Damjanovic. They might have won it.
As ever with England, it was the dull fade from the often crisp passing confidence of the first half to being holed up in their own area and the opposition growing in stature with every attack. The statistics told a grim story: they completed 250 passes in the first half compared to just 145 after the break.
It was much the same against Poland in October in Warsaw, and this time England fell back under waves of attacks until they were virtual prisoners in their own final third and then their own area where, after a series of corners, Montenegro eventually scored.
It is a problem for Hodgson and although three of their last four qualifiers are at Wembley, that remaining away game against Ukraine in September now looks like a worry, especially given how easily they have ceded the momentum in Warsaw and now Podgorica.
What’s happened to this side? They were unfortunate in the first half not to get a penalty when Danny Welbeck looked to have been clearly fouled by Stefan Savic as he ran down the left channel of the penalty area. The pitch which, for all the rain, looked dry and pitted was unhelpful to both teams but especially England who tried to move the ball quickly.
Yet, even so, there are worrying signs about this side. Steven Gerrard was not as imposing as he might once have been on a night like this. Rooney, having scored in the first half, struggled to break through the Montenegro defence again. Tom Cleverley looked overrun in the second half. At times it does feel that Hodgson’s England are caught between two generations, the waning of one and the rise of another.
After England finally, inevitably conceded they actually improved. Ashley Young replaced Cleverley and there was a free-kick from Gerrard that tested the goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic. In the meantime, the England manager himself just did not make changes to his team until Montenegro scored. Perhaps he felt the game was too finely balanced; perhaps he did not believe that he had the players capable of making that change.
Hodgson made six changes from a team that won its last game by eight goals. It was always the likely outcome once San Marino was out the way. Leave aside the question of the missing centre-halves and the absence of Jack Wilshere and it was close to a first choice XI, give or take the potential inclusion of Theo Walcott.
They started like a dream. Within three minutes, Glen Johnson had found Rooney’s down the right and with the Montenegro midfield nowhere to be seen he spotted Bozovic off his line and lobbed him. The ball hit the post.
Minutes later, Johnson had a left-footed drive tipped over by Bozovic and from Gerrard’s corner, Rooney was unmarked to head the ball in. It was his 35th goal for England but also his 26th in a competitive match for the national team, taking him equal with Michael Owen’s total, the record in that category.
The home side, inevitably, came into the game around the 20-minute mark but it was England who had the better chances. Switching positions, between the left and the centre, Rooney and Danny Welbeck were dangerous.
Rooney got a foot to James Milner’s driven ball to the backpost on 27 minutes but could not guide it on target and there was Welbeck’s penalty appeal when the Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson instead booked him for diving.Hodgson out of his seat in protest.
With Damjanovic on to give Montenegro greater strength down their right side against Welbeck, they were a different team in the second half. Johnson had picked up a needless booking with a clumsy tackle on Stevan Jovetic and looked uncertain. The loo rolls were on the pitch and it was squeaky bum time for England.
Under the cosh 10 minutes into the half England were very lucky on 59 minutes when Joleon Lescott’s clearing header from a corner fell very nicely for Vucinic in the box and he unaccountably could not keep his shot down. Five minutes later Montenegro broke three on two against England and could not make the chance count.
In those anxious moments there were some solid performances from England, but not many. Milner, who sprinted back to help see off the aforementioned Montenegro break, did everything asked of him. Michael Carrick tried to keep the passing rhythm but England were just giving it away. Joe Hart did well in this period, coming for a number of corners and saving a Jovetic strike.
From the first corner, the ball deflected against Gerrard and off the post. From the second corner, England buckled. In spite of another Hart save, the England defence could not get the ball clear and it was forced over the line by Damjanovic. It had been coming.
The response was better after that. Young came on and most of the attacking was from England at the end of the game. Gerrard’s free-kick was clumsily turned over by the Bozovic and the resultant corner from Young was poor when a better delivery would have asked question of the goalkeeper. A draw will have to do, but the memory of the second half will haunt Hodgson for some time yet.
Booked: Montenegro Novakovic, Volkov, Delibasic. England Johnson, Welbeck.
Man of the match Vucinic.
Match rating 8/10.
Possession: Montenegro 44%. England 56%.
Attempts on target: Montenegro 11. England 10. Referee J Eriksson (Swe).
Attendance 12,000.Reuse content