There was a quiet confidence surrounding England ahead of today’s match in Montenegro, a mood that was reflected on the field. A sixth minute header from Wayne Rooney gave England and early lead, and through halftime there was little doubt the Three Lions could carry their 1-0 to final whistle. But after veteran attacker Dejan Damjanović capitalized on Montenegro’s second half control and converted through the chaos of a 77th minute corner, England had to content themselves with an objectively 1-1 decent result, even if their standing will engender fears ahead of their final four qualifiers.
Undefeated by thrice drawn through six rounds, England sits second in their group with 12 points. Montenegro has 14 points, but because the teams are set to meet at Wembley to finish qualifying in October, England still holds their qualifying fate in their own hands. So does Montenegro, for the matter, with the winner of Group H earning a spot in Brazil. Second place in all likelihood heads to a playoff.
Montenegro has only been an independent nation since 2006 and has only competed in two major qualifying tournaments. They finished a disappointing fifth while trying to qualifying for South Africa 2010, but they nearly made the 2012 European Championships after finishing second in their group. With a full roster of talent playing in mid-to-major leagues throughout Europe, the Montenegrins have the ability to get through a qualifying tournament when things go well.
All of which should go without saying, but because their name doesn’t carry the international prestige of one of Europe’s established powers, there is a perception that England should be able to beat them. Given the talent on each team, that’s a fair perception, but as we learned earlier today, road qualifiers can be tricky for the best of sides. Even in Europe.
“We’d had control in midfield initially, but we lost that,” England manager Roy Hodgson said after the match, explaining where things went ‘wrong’ for his team. “So my overall feeling is one of disappointment, because things were looking so good for us at one stage.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly bad result because Montenegro are a difficult team to beat, but it would have been nice to have built on that lead at half-time and profited from it to go home with three points.”
England remaining qualifiers, beyond Montenegro: hosting Moldova (Sept.6), Poland (Oct. 15) and a trip to Ukraine. (Sept. 10).
Meanwhile, Montenegro still have a trip to Poland (Sept. 6) and a visit from Ukraine (June 7) before going to Wembley. Moldova (Oct. 15) is in there, too, though it’s unlikely the Montenegrins will be troubled with that visit.
With the group leaders facing difficult matches against the Poles and Ukrainians, England may be able to take Group H’s lead before Montenegro arrives in London.
That won’t diminish the feeling of disappointment around England’s team (one that’s already seen some of Roy Hodgson’s post-match comments criticized), but it’s a possibly unfounded emotion. The Three Lions aren’t so talented that they should scoff at a draw in Podgorica.
Keeping control of their own fate after their group’s most difficult away match, England should find peace with the result.