This was the sort of dogged, determined win where every sinew of every player was stretched to get their country over the line. The sort of win where every player can drag themselves off the pitch knowing they have given their all and ensured England will compete for international football’s biggest prize. The sort of win where minds turn towards the World Cup group-stage draw and how far the Three Lions can actually get. But this is only a job half done. The players must forget about their efforts in their first-ever win over Montenegro and focus on the final hurdle in four days. On Tuesday, Poland will make the trip to Wembley, and with Borussia Dortmund duo Jakub Błaszczykowski and Robert Lewandowski, they have more individual match-winners than tonight’s understrength Montenegro side. Ukraine face San Marino in their final group game and will win comfortably. If they show the lack of intensity and positivity displayed in the first half, failure to win is a real possibility. Lest we forget this was England’s first triumph over the other top three sides in Group H. The good news is that it’s still in their own hands.
Roy Hodgson is not scared of making bold decisions; whether it’s selecting a 31-year-old lower-league journeyman or throwing a young winger with limited big-game experience into the pressure cooker situation of a must-win qualifier. It would have been easy for him to select the reliable old carthorse James Milner to run tirelessly up and down the right wing as he and many other England managers have done before. But he went with the direct, dangerous option – the player that he thought could expose the full-backs and cause real problems. In truth, Andros Townsend’s slightly heavy first touch may have been pounced upon by world-class opposition. Hodgson, though, can only pick a team to play the side in front of him, and Townsend was the star of the show. He continued his fine Premier League form by flying past his man with extreme regularity and capped his performance with a goal. If England do make it to Rio, he will have surely booked his plane ticket with this performance if not that one, luscious swing of his weaker right foot. He gives England a unique right-sided option with his ability to cut inside. With Hodgson seeing dividends from his risk taking and other talents like Ross Barkley standing out in this fledgling season, what his starting eleven would be come June is anyone’s guess. Nobody’s place is safe.
England went to Euro 2012 with Hodgson in the rare position of being new to the job at a major tournament. He set up a side that were tough to break down, came out of their group unbeaten and resisted Italy for 120 minutes. Many of the Three Lions’ goals in big games have come from set plays, scrappy tap-ins or from distance. You only need to look at Friday’s win, but more relevant are England’s recent good results against Brazil, where all four goals across both games came from outside the box. The Three Lions have a decent track record of getting results against so-called lesser teams. They also come unstuck in major tournaments against the teams that don’t concede those sorts of goals. Their best football of the Euros came when they were forced into a more positive game-plan against Sweden. Against Montenegro, England lacked any real tempo or cutting edge until they upped their perforance after half-time, and within three minutes, had forced Montenegro to chase the game. Again they look set to come through qualifying solid and unbeaten but one fears the lessons of the last four years will not be heeded. Surely it would be better to move the ball quicker and try to mould a new style than watching a repeat of the way they went out in 2012. And who knows, such a gamble could possibly see them past the quarter-finals.
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