England looked to have been struck by a sucker punch in Podgorica when Marko Vesovic fired Montenegro ahead with their first shot, but Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions recovered to roar back to an impressive 5-1 win.
It had looked like a routine qualifying game for England in the opening ten minutes, as they knocked the ball around confidently, relatively unchallenged by Montenegro.
However, 17 minutes into the contest, Montenegro pounced on some poor defensive positioning from England, which saw Fatos Beqiraj get the better of Michael Keane and play in Vesovic.
The Legia Warsaw wing back still had plenty to do, and did get a lucky bounce of the ball, but it was a fantastic finish past a diving Jordan Pickford to give the hosts a surprise lead.
England were stunned following the goal, having come so against the run of play.
Luckily, within 12 minutes, Keane atoned for the defensive mistakes in the lead up to the Montenegrin goal and headed home his first England goal from a brilliant Ross Barkley delivery. It was exactly what England needed to knock the confidence the home side was rapidly developing.
Yet, they still didn’t look comfortable. England looked truly shaky at the back, getting picked apart by the Montenegro attack, who briefly turned into Barcelona as they carved open Southgate’s defence with one-touch, tiki-taka style play.
England were dangerous going forward – as is usually the case in these kinds of qualifying games – but for once Montenegro also looked likely to score each time they attacked. There was a real attacking contest on display for fans of both sides in Podgorica, even if the defending left something to be desired.
For England’s sake, boy wonder Callum Hudson-Odoi – who was making his first start for England – managed to work some space and fire a shot towards goal that Barkley was on hand to tap into the net.
It was a much needed goal to put England back in the ascendancy, and Hudson-Odoi deserved his role in the game. Perhaps at fault with his position for the Montenegrin opener, largely just through youthful naivety, he was full of eagerness and energy going forwards. Even if things weren’t coming off, he was still getting his head down and looking to attack at every opportunity.
Once England had the lead, you expected Montenegro to fall back into the usual trap in these qualifying games – sit back and defend desperately, looking for that once chance.
Huge respect should be given to the home side, because they weren’t giving up this game. Perhaps still feeling hard done by from the bad penalty call late on against them in their last match against Bulgaria, they kept pushing forward and cutting England open at the back.
As such, it was a massive relief to see Barkley – who was quite possibly the luckiest player to ever wear an England shirt – be in the right place at the right time to smash home Raheem Sterling’s pull back early in the second half.
It gave England the breathing room, even if it made massively clear a glaring flaw with Southgate’s side in Podgorica.
They were in essence a glass cannon. Going forwards, England look absolutely unplayable. They’re full of youth, talent and desire and look like one of the best sides in Europe right now.
However, at the back, they were found out time and time again by Montenegro. This is an opponent who haven’t actually won many recent games at home, certainly not against sides of the quality of England, and yet every time they drove forward there looked like a real chance of them scoring. England need to buckle down at the back, getting rid of some genuinely concerning mistakes and complacency that was present in this match.
As time ran out on the clock, England’s better stamina let them run rings around the Montenegrin defence, with Sterling the architect driving the play.
First, the Manchester City winger drove into the box from a delightful through ball before slotting the ball across for Harry Kane to tap in possibly the easiest international goal he’ll ever score, before a similarly brilliant pass let Sterling drive home a fifth low past the goalkeeper.
It was an attacking masterclass against an opponent that fought hard but simply ran out of steam.
Some unsightly frustrations emerged out of the England late on that Southgate will want to get out of his players, with first Jordan Henderson picking up a foolish yellow card for getting into a confrontation and minor handbags with the Montenegrin players – who by then had turned from competitors to wind-up merchants.
Rose then collected a last second yellow when he utterly unnecessarily cleaned out one of Montenegro’s midfield. Late on, 5-1 up and in an entirely harmless position of the field, it was absolutely ridiculous and could cost him later on in the qualifying games with suspension.
However, following the game, there were a number of allegations of racial abuse from the Montenegrin supporters towards Rose, and England’s other black players – making the frustrated kick out (while still a stupid action) a lot more understandable. It also demonstrated the huge character of Sterling and Hudson-Odoi, who suffered similar abuse throughout the game too, and kept their heads.
It was ultimately a blemish on the end of a great attacking display, while the defensive frailties offered a few little murmurs of concern for Southgate and his coaching staff ahead of the next international break.
However, negatives aside, England still walk away from their two EURO 2020 qualifiers with a perfect record, two wins, six points and having scored 10 goals – with only one in response.
It still remains an exciting team, and England fans can feel hopeful looking towards those finals come next summer, with qualification already looking in almost no doubt.