The two pace-setters in European Championships Qualifying Group G met at Wembley last night with their respective 100% records on the line. Montenegro, playing in London without their captain and ringleader Mirko Vucinic, had won all three of their opening matches in the group. Hosts England defeated Bulgaria and Switzerland in the first double-header and looked to join Montenegro on nine points.
A draw with the group leaders, leaving England still on track for qualification, should be seen by realistic observers as an acceptable result. But the fact that Fabio Capello’s side might now have to win in Montenegro to guarantee qualification, coupled with the limp performance last night, has rightly angered many. Yes, we must accept that we’re not a force in world football. But even within the confines of the 90 minutes yesterday, England failed to take an opportunity for three points that had surely came their way.
England were patient in the early stages, with all the pace and directness injected into their play by Adam Johnson and Ashley Young on the flanks. Peter Crouch had the first effort on goal, heading over from Glen Johnson’s cross after 15 minutes. That aside, the first half hour was dire. Wayne Rooney looked short of concentration on a handful of occasions and England’s final ball was quite poor, including the inevitable Steven Gerrard Hollywood balls that so frustrate supporters.
Adam Johnson’s 33rd minute free kick from 25 yards gave the Montenegrins a brief fright but the first half was a rather turgid affair. England didn’t necessarily lack ambition, but their inability to create threatening positions meant they never really had the opportunity to test Montenegro’s mean defence or seemingly vulnerable goalkeeper. Rooney’s shot in stoppage time was poorly struck after Glen Johnson’s pass across goal had been, inevitably, intercepted.
The action after the break was not much better. One or two nasty tackles went in on Ashleys Cole and Young but in general Montenegro were comfortable. I don’t think there had been any chance of England under-estimating the visitors but they were making hard work of testing their mettle. The best chance of the game came just before the hour mark when Rooney found a promising seam only for goalkeeper Mladen Božovic to provide a formidable barrier in front of his shot.
Young was booked for a dive in the penalty area soon afterwards and it signalled an increased tension in the match, which started to become more than a little fractious. With 11 minutes left, Crouch made way for a debutant that deserves his place but represents a lack of ideas and progressiveness in the national team set-up. Bolton Wanderers striker Kevin Davies has been in fine form for a few years now and, at 33, will feel vindicated by his first cap.
His introduction caused almost instant havoc. He crossed well with his first touch and then linked up cleverly with Rooney to create a shooting chance that brought the best from the Montenegro goalkeeper. In the 77th minute England were denied a clear penalty for a clumsy and badly disguised handball by Milan Jovanovic. Just slowly they were beginning to pick some holes in the Montenegro rearguard but it felt like too little, too late. It could have been even worse for England. With seven minutes left Jovanovic’s volleyed shot from distance bent right over England’s Joe Hart and crashed harmlessly off the crossbar.
The final minute saw England force Božovic into action again, the Montenegro stopper getting down well to claw away Gareth Barry’s shot at the end of a spot of goalmouth pinball and then holding on comfortably at the second attempt. With that, the match that had never truly ignited finally fizzled out into the goalless draw that had seemed its destiny for some time.
The post-mortem, of course, will be drawn-out and painful, with anyone who dares to argue that England should have won being shouted down by those determined to make the point that we’re not as good as we think. But the fact is that we should have won – not because we have a divine right to do so, or because our players are “stars”, but because on the night competence would have been enough. Although Montenegro played their part in frustrating the home side, they’ll have to play better than they did last night in order to qualify – they’ve already shown they can, and I’m sure they will again. But England fans have every right to be disappointed.