Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hesitant Hodgson costs England dear

Montenegro 1 England 1

Henry Winter IN Podgorica

On a night of early hope and ultimate pain, England were as wretched and nerve-riddled in the second half here as they had been fluid and confident in the first.

It was a truly shocking transformation, all life draining from them after the break. Gone was all the composure and goal threat. England needed a substitute to give them an outlet, but Roy Hodgson delayed the introduction of Ashley Young until after a Montenegrin substitute Dejan Damjanovic had equalised Wayne Rooney's earlier header.

As players like Rooney had prepared for this key game, listening to a few stirring words from Gerrard and Hodgson, the atmosphere was building in Podgorica hours before kick-off.

Rooney led the charge, escaping from markers like Miodrag Dzudovic, causing chaos, clearly chasing redemption after his red card here for kicking Dzudovic in 2011. He had No 10 on his back and No 9 as his assignment. Speeding in from the left after two minutes, Rooney chipped the ball over Mladen Bozovic but against the post. At least it signalled England's ambition.

Montenegro had the flares, and the Brazilian flag, but England had the ball, enjoying 58pc possession in the first half, and they had Rooney.


There was a composure to Hodgson's men in the early stages, a desire to keep the ball on the floor, making a mockery of Branko Brnovic's pre-match comments about perceived directness.

England played some mature, intelligent, attractive football in the first half. They were at Montenegro's defence early and persistently.

Glen Johnson's cross was controlled by Danny Welbeck, whose shot was blocked. Gerrard laid the ball back to Johnson, whose 30-yarder was tipped over by Bozovic.

England maintained the pressure, taking the lead after six minutes. Gerrard curled the corner over and there was Rooney sealing his redemption moment, heading home, before being engulfed in the collective embrace of his white-shirted colleagues.

It was an emotional, historic moment. Rooney's header equalled Michael Owen's England competitive goalscoring mark of 26. His 35th international goal also moved him to within five of Owen, who lies fourth in the all-time list.

England fans broke off from making abusive comments about the absent Rio Ferdinand to celebrate the goal raucously.

In front of them, England were pressing hard. Welbeck, starting on the left but tracking back, closed down Mitar Novakovic. Michael Carrick dispossessed Stefan Savic. James Milner tackled Vladimir Volkov.

Yet when Tom Cleverley escaped with an excessive attempt at ball-winning, Brnovic responded angrily, throwing a bottle along the touchline and earning a rebuke from the Swedish fourth official.

England were being increasingly pegged back. Jovetic and Vucinic, sped forward, combining and Volkov's cross needed an emergency clearance from Joleon Lescott.

After all the Montenegrin coach's comments about long balls, it was not until the 18th minute that England really wasted possession with Milner's hoof.

England were breaking occasionally. Rooney dinked a cross that Welbeck just failed to connect with. Rooney himself went close to adding a second after good work by Gerrard, who was pushing on with Carrick anchoring soundly. Welbeck and Cleverley then linked up neatly down the left. This was encouraging from England, who were moving the ball around brightly.

Montenegro attempted to equalise but Smalling blocked Elsad Zverotic's effort while Joe Hart commanded his area to claim a Simon Vukcevic corner.

The half ended on a controversial note when Welbeck was cautioned for simulation, following a challenge by Savic.

Montenegro tore into England after the break. Jovetic headed into the side-netting as Hart dived to his right. The Fiorentina striker then missed at the other post.

Hart was now in front of the main Ultras section, who lobbed down loo-paper. The ball-girls were quick to retrieve these; one darted on to collect a coin which she handed to a policeman.

Nerves seeped into England's play. Montenegro were coming on stronger and stronger. Lescott and Milner erred. Vucinic shot over, and then had a low, deflected drive saved by Hart.

The Montenegrin with his own sound-system was really cranking up the volume, sending the fans bouncing up and down. Such was the noise that Hart had to rush out and get close to Cole to pass on a message after 63 minutes.

Scarcely had Hart regained his box then Montenegro were counter-attacking suddenly. Only Cole and Johnson were back but Jovetic sliced the ball, allowing Hart to gather when a frustrated Vucinic was well-placed and unmarked on the left.

England were crying out for a change, for someone to give them an outlet. Hodgson desisted until Montenegro had the equaliser their pressure deserved, with sub Damjanovic pouncing after some desperate clearances.

Hodgson sent on Young for Cleverley but it was too late. Hodgson faces a painful inquest. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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