Much of the pre-match debate focused on Wayne Rooney’s England disciplinary record after his red card on his last visit to Podgorica, when the Manchester United striker was sent off after kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovic in a 2-2 draw in the Montenegrin capital in November 2011. But the 27-year-old switched the attention back to his footballing ability – and not his hotheaded nature – with a dynamic performance against the Group H leaders on Tuesday. The Red Devils forward had the air of a man with a point to prove from the off. In the second minute, he collected possession in midfield before striding forward unchallenged and lifting a chipped attempt over Montenegro goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic, with the woodwork coming to the rescue of the self-professed Chelsea supporter. Throughout the World Cup qualifier, Rooney was found lurking around the home side’s area, swapping short passes with club team-mates Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck, particularly in the first half. And it was no surprise to see the striker break the deadlock in the sixth minute, guiding an unmarked header past Bozovic from a Steven Gerrard corner. In doing so, Rooney became the first player to score in four successive qualifying matches since David Beckham in 2003.
Stevan Jovetic would have eyed Montenegro’s clash against England as a chance to impress potential suitors in the Premier League. The Fiorentina midfielder has been linked with a move to Arsenal and Manchester City in recent months after scoring 12 goals in 27 appearances this season. While Jovetic may be scoring freely for La Viola in Serie A, he has struggled on the international scene, with the 23-year-old unable to find the net in 18 months. With Michael Carrick and Gerrard sitting deep, there was little space for Jovetic to exploit in front of Joe Hart’s area as he was limited to just one ambitious effort in the first half. However, Dejan Damjanovic’s introduction at half-time pushed Jovetic to the left side of Montenegro’s midfield, and it was a tactical move which produced results. The playmaker started to grow into the game and was unfortunate to steer a free header the wrong side of Hart’s post in the 49th minute. When a rare England excursion into the Montenegro half broke down, Jovetic led the charge towards an exposed Three Lions goal, outnumbering their opponents 3-2, but failed to produce an incisive pass for captain Mirko Vucinic. While he could be accused of lacking composure at crucial moments, the Fiorentina star did showcase his eye for the spectacular with a superb run which led to an opening for Vucinic, before unleashing a rasping half volley and drawing a smart save from Hart.
While England’s full-backs Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are among the first names on Hodgson’s team sheet, there continues to be uncertainty at the heart of his defence. For the best part of a decade, Rio Ferdinand and John Terry have been a dependable partnership, but since the 2010 World Cup, it’s been a problem position for the Three Lions. Hodgson has alternated between using Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka alongside Joleon Lescott but none are world-class names who hold the same aura as former England centre-halves such as Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Ferdinand or Terry. Lescott has struggled to hold down a first-team place at City this season and looked off the pace, particularly when he misjudged a Montenegro pass and allowed Vucinic to rescue possession and test Hart. Failing to learn from his mistake, the City defender was almost caught out in an identical situation minutes later but switched on just in time. Stronger opponent’s wouldn’t be so merciful. Lescott was partnered with United youngster Chris Smalling, who is still learning the ropes on the international scene, and can’t be faulted for a steady display. Hodgson, whether he privately wants to or not, may need to turn to Ferdinand despite the centre-half’s recent withdrawal if he is to add much-needed international experience at centre-half. The United defender’s presence certainly could have prevented Damjanovic’s simple leveller in the 76th minute.
Having dominated the opening period, Hodgson will be frustrated to have squandered three points and a chance to move a point clear of Montenegro at the top of Group H after the visitors were punished for a tame second-half display. Damjanovic’s equaliser came from a free header, similar to Rooney’s opener, and the Three Lions can have no complaints after struggling to match Montenegro after the break. In fact, Hodgson’s men looked very much like the England side which struggled to keep possession in the latter stages of matches at Euro 2012. Hodgson deserves credit for trusting in up-and-coming Three Lions stars such as Cleverley and Welbeck, but he shouldn’t be afraid to turn to experienced veterans when the circumstances require a calm head to see out a crucial result. The England boss opted against bringing on Frank Lampard with his side toiling. He instead opted for the unpredictable Ashley Young, which was a bizarre decision considering Montenegro’s continued dominance. Despite allowing three points to slip out of their grasp, it is far from a disastrous result for the visitors, who are yet to take on the Group H leaders at Wembley. If England can win that crunch clash, their place in Brazil would almost be assured.
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