The Battle In The Balkans: England v Montenegro

The oldest footballing nation faced the newest and somehow everybody won - not that you can tell from the reaction. But as any England manager would tell you, there’s no pleasing some people.
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The oldest footballing nation faced the newest and somehow everybody won - not that you can tell from the reaction. But as any England manager would tell you, there’s no pleasing some people.

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It’s all well and good bottling it against the big teams at major tournaments but could England do it on a wet Friday in Podgorica? The pre match down pour made it treacherous under foot but would the Three Lions really slip up in Montenegro? Well, almost…

Before the game it looked ominous for Montenegro. England had been ruthless away from Wembley, scoring eight and conceding one. The Montenegrins needed a point and for Wales to do them a favour to have any chance of qualifying for their first major championships. To be fair to the Montenegrins, in the very early stages of the contest – namely the national anthems – international football’s newest national anthem "Oh, Bright Dawn of May" more than held it’s own against the oldest. Don’t get me wrong, ‘God Save The Queen’ is a cracking ditty that could and does inspire people to do great things; but you can’t see yourself shadow boxing to it in the changing rooms before a game like you could to the old Montenegrin and Serb folk song that now represents Montenegro at award ceremonies.

From the kick off it looked like the pre-game sing song was as good as it would get for Montenegro. Within 11 minutes the hosts were one down. Theo Walcott’s delivery for the opener boded well. The Arsenal flyer isn’t known for his end product when he’s got time to think about what he has to do. When the ball came out to him on the right I – like I suspect many up and down the country – was inhaling ready to let out a disappointing sigh. But an inch perfect cross for Young to nod in from 5 yards out raised an eyebrow and a smile. Then as Montenegro created promising situations, making the odd foray into Joe Hart’s penalty area without actually looking like scoring, a swift Rooney led counter attack and without being particularly convincing England doubled their lead. Two tap ins and they were in control. Now it was a case of staying awake until the adverts. Then on the stroke of half time Zverotic’s goal woke me and the crowd up. The cruise looked like it could be entering choppy waters.

Cue the sound of 10,000 tweets suspected that Wayne Rooney Sr. had lumped on at 10/1 after getting a bit of inside knowledge that Wayne Jnr would get sent off.

Then the second half kicked off and it was like welcoming back an old friend. I say friend it was more like an errant spouse who you’d thought had changed but was beginning to act up and disappoint you all over again. From the time Phil Jones gave away a stonewall penalty and got away with it all the old failings came to light. Parker and Barry constantly gave the ball away. Then the midfield didn’t have a chance to give it away as the defence bypassed them for long over hit passes into the channels. Then of course the red mist descended on Rooney. The owner of two of England’s last three red cards Wazza walked after a petulant kick on Dzudovic. Cue the sound of 10,000 tweets suspecting that Wayne Rooney Sr. had lumped on at 10/1 after getting a bit of inside knowledge that Wayne Jnr would get sent off. Montenegro turned the screw equalised and got their just deserts for a spirited second half performance. Gamblers across Europe tore up their betting slips as the coupon-busting winners of Group G were held to an unexpected draw and the Montenegrins went crazy. And boy did they go crazy.

So what have we learnt about the Three Lions prospect in Poland and Ukraine?

Nothing really. When they’re good England can be easy on the eye. When they’re rubbish they can make grown men cry. When the going gets tough England can’t keep the ball but have enough quality players to get passed all but a handful of teams. Qualifying top without losing a match is not to be sneezed at but you suspect when England face an opponent who wins international tournaments they’ll be found wanting. But we knew that already.

Yesterday Stephen Tudor wrote of his wish for England to finish the campaign in style. Obviously that didn’t happen but hopefully this lacklustre end to the qualifying campaign will help England ahead of Polkraine 2012. Fabio’s commanding route through qualification raised expectations ahead of the World Cup, that crazy win over Argentina in late 2005 had us believing Sven’s men were world beaters in the run up to Germany 2006 and the 5-1 in Munich and Beckham’s free kick against Greece had us believing England had one hand on the trophy ahead of Japorea 2002. Assuming the Three Lions can serve up some disjointed turgid rubbish against the reigning World and European champions as they’re comprehensively beaten by Spain at Wembley expectations going into next summers Euros should be reasonable. Add Rooney’s suspension for at least one game and there’s a chance England could be under estimated going to Poland and Ukraine, which is probably the best for this mentally fragile collection of players.

They’ve tried different types of manager: the motivator (Keegan) the sophisticated foreigner (Erikson), the players’ friend (McClaren), and the disciplinarian (Capello). Perhaps the change needed is in approach. Having a realistic view (or lower) of the Three Lions chances in Poland and Ukraine may be the missing ingredient and when England inevitably confounds our expectations this time it’ll be in a good way.

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