In all honesty, the excitement that surrounding England’s two opening wins against Bulgaria and Switzerland passed very quickly indeed. The post-South Africa combination of jitters and lethargy seems to be lingering over the national team like an unwanted smell and even the press build-up to this match – Look! Rio’s Back! – doesn’t seem to lift the feeling of torpor surrounding a European Championship qualifying group that feels more like a chore. The only thing worse than qualifying would be not qualifying. In the tunnel before the match, Steven Gerrard appears to be holding a Wham! bar and, during the national anthems, Wayne Rooney maintains the facial expression of a man that could quite do with a roll-up. It’s that sort of evening.
Montenegro, of course, are here for the first time. The English press have been preparing for their arrival at Wembley, primarily by drawing up a cross-newspaper list of cities in England that have a larger popuation than Montenegro (London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield if we include metropolitan areas, in case you were hankering after something approaching a definitive list) and noting that Roma’s Mirko Vucinic will be missing from their team this evening, unavailable thanks to a hamstring injury. They have won their first three games without having conceded a goal against Switzerland, Bulgaria and Wales. Also, their national anthem has something of “The Imperial March” from Star Wars about it from a distance, which is pleasing, if somewhat surprising.
The opening ten minutes is spritely enough, and England begin in an encouraging fashion with Steven Gerrard sending a long ball through in two minutes for Peter Crouch. It’s more than a half chance but Crouch throws himself in the direction of the ball without managing to get a touch upon it. If only he was a couple of inches taller, eh? The Montenegrans respond with a couple of tame, foot-wrapped-around-the-ball shots from distance, but England seem in control. Ashley Young and Peter Crouch shoot and head over. It’s comfortable without crossing the line into exhilaration. The possession and quarter-chances continue. Adam Johnson brings a reasonable save from the Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic with a long range shot from a free-kick, but the rest of the half floats past in the listless, dream-like state of an anaesthetic hallucination. Half-time. Goalless. In Wapping, the knives sharpen.
At half-time, we can take a moment to consider the Montenegran tactics. They have come to Wembley to stifle, frustrate and cut off the supply line to Wayne Rooney. There is nothing wrong with this – they will be happy enough with a point from this match and if England want more from it than this, they will have to break this blanket defence down. Meanwhile, ITV takes a moment to try and rouse the sofa-bound audience. England have won their last eleven successive matches at Wembley. They’ve not yet failed to score in a match at the new Wembley stadium. On the basis of what we have seen in the first half, however, these look like records to be broken rather than reasons to be cheerful.
In the opening fifteen minutes of the second half, England pick up the pace a little but it is still impossible to tell whether they will stall or reach top speed. The most entertaining aspect of this passage of play comes from a flurry of yellow cards – Rooney for a petulant hack, Young for diving, Barry for leading with his forearm and Krizanovic for bringing down Ashley Young – but, as the half progresses, it starts to become clear that the Montenegran hero du jour is likely to be the goalkeeper Bozovic, who saves with his legs and upper arm from Rooney and with a comfortable catch from Adam Johnson. With twenty minutes to go, Peter Crouch makes way for one of the more surprising England debutants of recent years. Five minutes later, there’s a massive shout for a penalty and there is good cause for it – Milan Jovanovic seems to handle deliberately inside the penalty area, but neither the referee nor his assistant manage to spot it, somehow and the game grinds on.
Then, with six minutes left to play, England use up their own get out of jail free card. Joe Hart has been a spectator for the whole of the match, but it wouldn’t made much of a difference if he he’d had the springs from an Acme jack-in-the-box in his feet as Jovanovic volleys goalwards from twenty-five yards. The ball twangs out off the crossbar with such force that the whole bar momentarily wobbles as if in a Looney Tunes cartoon. England manage a couple of half-chances in the closing minutes, but by this time they have the feel of a slowly deflating balloon. By full-time, the crowd has already started to leave in order to avoid the worst of the Hanger Lane Gyratory. Those that are left allow their boos to ring around the half-empty stadium with the semi-familiar echo which accompanies such occasions.
Since the World Cup, there have been two tentative steps forward for England followed by one hesitant step back. The familiar shortcomings were all present and correct this evening. The passing was sloppy and wayward. Wayne Rooney put in the performance of a man that hasn’t managed yet to completely cast his personal tribulations to one side. They looked useful in fits and starts, but the overall performance was sluggish and rusty. Montenegro, meanwhile, demonstrated all of the efficiency and tidiness that saw them win their opening three group matches and there was nothing on display this evening to suggest that England’s task in their final group match in Podgorica won’t be a considerably more difficult task than their match at Wembley was this evening – and this in a match that they may need to win in order to qualify for the finals of the tournament. It remains in their hands, but it feels as if England are going to make hard work of qualifying for the finals of Euro 2012.