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Main » 2013 » March » 27 » World Cup qualifying: Montenegro - England

World Cup qualifying: Montenegro - England

rooneyWayne Rooney’s dismissal in a Euro 2012 qualifier in this city 18 months ago weighed heavily on him, Manchester United noticed.

Alone among England’s players, Rooney must have felt a flash of relief when this World Cup qualifying draw threw up a chance to return to Podgorica and set things right. 

 If Rooney did, in his own private sphere, England made the same mistake of 18 months ago, losing control of this match after half-time to finish it frazzled and still two points off the lead in Group H, with only 12 still to play for. 

 The warm reviews of the first 45 minutes gave way to an icy shower of anger as England’s fans vented their frustration at this ominous 1-1 draw. They have still not beaten this country of 620,000 inhabitants in three attempts. 

 From the moment Montenegro’s hotly nationalistic fans jeered his name Rooney was super-animated by a desire to tear through the red-shirted defence ahead of him on a spongy pitch. 

 Six minutes in, Steven Gerrard braved a cascade of scrunched up paper objects as he swung in a corner and Rooney rose to head his 26th goal in competitive internationals, bringing him level with Michael Owen.

And that was all the good news for the night, packaged up in six precious minutes. From there the game descended into a familiar display of English frailty, with Frank Lampard, Leon Osman and Scott Parker left on the sidelines while England’s midfield called out for order. 

 Under duress, the core of England’s team is pulled to all four corners. Walkie-talkies would be needed for them to keep in touch. 

 Rooney’s physical shape was again less than svelte but there was no lack of thrust in his legs. Maybe lingering shame drove him on. Staff at United observed a sharp drop in his spirits after he had kicked the legs of a Montenegrin defender here in October 2011 and dragged England into an expensive and wearying appeal at Uefa headquarters. 

 With his belligerence — blamed by coach Fabio Capello on the arrest of Rooney senior in relation to an alleged match-fixing scandal (no charges were brought) — Rooney made himself the story from the moment he swung the boot until the Ukraine game at Euro 2012. 

 This tedious rolling sideshow was the real cost of his tantrum on this pitch – and the account he had to settle this time round. 

 The second half was to be a torrid, stressful spell for Hodgson’s team, but at least Rooney was true to his gifts, unlike last time, when he was only true to his temper. 

 Plumes of smoke, fighting in the Montenegro end, chest-thumping Europop, thrown toilet rolls and the booming roars of locals who seldom smile by day but can make a hell of a noise by night. 

 This was the setting for England’s mission to seize the initiative and take the heat out of their last four games against Ukraine away and Moldova, Montenegro and Poland at home. 

 They failed in that regard and are not masters of their fate. Draws against Poland, Ukraine and now ‘The Brave Falcons’ here have been damaging. 

 The Football Association delegation looked shattered as they chewed over the mathematics. Play-offs would offer an escape but still the horror looms. Missing out on a World Cup in Brazil would be mortifying and calamitous. 

 Rooney may still lose his rag in some environments but he is not noticeably vulnerable to intimidation. There was no opportunity for Montenegro to target him, though their fans did their best, exhorting him to go forth and multiply after his goal and heckling his every touch. 

 The hosts, though, were too busy trying to smother the breaks of Danny Welbeck and Rooney’s intelligent work across the forward line. 

 Three minutes had passed when he delivered his first statement, chipping Mladen Bozovic in the Montenegro goal but striking the keeper’s left-hand post. The warning was plain: there was a score to settle (not that any Montenegrin had been to blame for his dismissal 18 months ago). 

 Despite the undulations in his career, his talent — or the threat of it — is still a useful currency. Defenders know it can always hurt them. When the glint is in his eye there is no choice but to track his every move. 

 Together, Rooney and Welbeck established a jitteriness at the back of Montenegro’s team which then spread upfield. Gerrard also contributed to this anxiety with his runs towards the box. 

 The comparative ease of the first half, though, disappeared after the interval with a restoking of Montenegrin fire. Their coach, Branko Brnovic, had thrown a bottle on the pitch in disgust at a refereeing decision and was doubtless ready with his tirade by the time his players reached the dressing room. 

 England’s loss of control in the 15 minutes after the break was reminiscent of their last visit here, when a Montenegrin counter-surge and Rooney’s red card sent Capello’s team home dishevelled. It goes back further than that. Years. Decades, some would say. This side are not strong enough away from home, as we have seen in Warsaw and now Podgorica. 

 But at least qualification for Euro 2012 was assured back in October 2011. This campaign remains rocky. There can no longer be the expectation that Rooney will be England’s match-winner but they will cling to that hope again. He laid his Montenegro demon to rest. Chaotic England could not do the same.
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