Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

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.

They didn’t.

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.

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

Fabian Schar’s head injury v Georgia demonstrates football’s glaring issues regarding injury protocols

It doesn’t take a medical expert to understand that there should be little messing around when it comes to serious head injuries in football. For example, should a player be knocked unconscious after a clash of heads, it’s probably not best he continues playing.

Yet, for Newcastle’s Swiss international Fabian Schar, that very situation did happen over the weekend.

The central defender suffered a nasty clash of heads with Georgian defender Jemal Tabidze as both players challenged for the ball early in the first half, and the Premier League centre back was left visibly unconscious.

Thankfully, the players around Schar – from both teams, it should be added – were quick to rush to his aid. Opposition midfielder Jano Ananidze even went as far as to reach into Schar’s mouth to ensure the 27-year-old did not choke on his own tongue.

Luckily for the Newcastle defender, after some treatment from the Swiss medical team, he had regained consciousness and was looking in better shape.

However, he still admitted after the match that he couldn’t remember anything from the incident and was still feeling some residual effects of it.

“It looks awful, I can’t remember anything,” Schar told Swiss newspaper Blick.

“I was to for a few seconds. My skull is still humming. And I’ve got a neck ache and a bruise on my forehead.”

Despite all this, Schar was incredibly given the all clear by the Swiss medical staff and allowed to return to the field of play, finishing the entire match for his side – who won 2-0 in the end.

In a modern sporting world where people are all too aware of the serious dangers head injuries can cause, particularly concussion injuries and those from a loss of consciousness, it was frankly reckless to allow Schar back onto the field of play.

Unsurprisingly, the decision has led to a lot of criticism, with brain injury charity Headway even calling for a UEFA investigation into the matter.

However, the issue is endemic of a problem with modern football, that just simply seems to be behind the times in terms of combating head injuries and the associated risks and problems.

Rugby, a much more physical contact sport, has concussion substitutions and significant and thorough protocols that must be adhered to in regards to even a suspected concussion. Yet, football does not.

There are FIFA guidelines, but it appears as if these are mere suggestions rather than strictly enforced and adhered-to principles.

Schar’s injury is not the first case of football’s lax rules surrounding head injuries rearing its head at a top level either; and more scarily, likely won’t be the last.

The 2018 World Cup in Russia had its own head injury controversy when Moroccan international Nordin Amrabat suffered what appeared clearly to be a concussion after a very heavy collision between his head and the turf. Visibly dazed and unaware of what was going on around him, he was substituted in the match thankfully – but then returned to the field of play five days later, sporting nothing more than a rugby scrum cap (which, incidentally, he then removed during the game in frustration).

Football seems to have an endemic problem with combating serious head injuries and working out appropriate ways to ensure player safety is the upmost priority.

I don’t necessarily think it’s intentional negligence from the football governing bodies, but rather a lack of needed consideration on the matter. Fixing football head injury protocol is hardly a glamorous, headline-grabbing action – despite how important it actually is – and therefore FIFA and its executives are much more focused on commercially-driven, flashy issues such as expanding World Cups and reworking major tournaments.

Hopefully the level of outcry and attention the Schar incident has received will force through necessary change to protect the safety of players involved in football. However, if it doesn’t, then it’s a real worry what would actually need to happen for change to come about.

In Schar’s case, some crucial fast-thinking from his fellow players on the pitch and good luck meant he came out the other side of the nasty collision relatively unscathed, but that may not necessarily be the outcome next time round.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to something like that to see football fix its currently woeful head injury protocols.

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England ran out confident 5-0 winners in their opening EURO 2020 qualifying match against Czech Republic, with Raheem Sterling stealing the show with a sublime hat-trick.

The Manchester City winger opened the scoring for England with a poacher’s finish, before adding two more clinical finishes to silence any potential critics. For a player previously criticised for lacking goals in a national team shirt, he made no mistake with his chances in this one.

He fully deserved his plaudits as he walked off the Wembley pitch shortly after to be rested for the next match against Montenegro.

Harry Kane had added a second for England just before half-time from the spot after Portuguese referee Artur Manuel Soares Dias awarded the home side a penalty.

It was an arguably soft decision, with Sterling simply being sandwiched between two Czech defenders and possibly having already lost control of the ball, but either way Kane made no mistake with the finish.

A poor defensive error from Bristol City centre-back Tomas Kalas finished the scoring when he fumbled the ball into the back of his own net. It had bounced up at him from a save by his goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka, but it did seem as if the Czech defender had time to adjust his feet.

Gareth Southgate used the match to blood in some young faces into the England set-up, with Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho getting a first start and Callum Hudson-Odoi getting a run-out later on.

Declan Rice also made his first international appearance for England since making the switch of allegiance from the Republic of Ireland.

England looked encouraging, full of a good balance of youthful energy and necessary experience. In what could have easily been a banana skin of an opening fixture (the Czech Republic have some real EURO pedigree behind them) the Three Lions got exactly the result that was needed.

The clean sheet was an added bonus, though in fairness England had little defensive work to do throughout much of the match. So much so that there did appear to be some few moments of complacency at the start of the second half, but the England defence rode the pressure well.

In truth, England’s group is one that shouldn’t cause any real problems. Especially not at Wembley.

There may be no out-and-out ‘whipping boy’ in the group, but none of Bulgaria, Montenegro or Kosovo should provide any more of a threat than Czech Republic did.

With a brilliant start now in the bag, England just need to push on and keep this form up. There will be a raucous reception for them in Podgorica on Monday, as Montenegro look to psych them out of the match, but on paper at least it should be another confident display and win.

Underestimated or simply upstaged? Scotland stumble from the start against Kazakhstan

Underestimated or simply upstaged? Scotland stumble from the start against Kazakhstan

Scotland fell to an embarrassing 3-0 defeat to Kazakhstan in their opening EURO 2020 qualifying match in the Kazakh capital, Nursultan. However, was it a case of underestimating the underdog, or simply being upstaged by a nation rising to the occasion?

Going into the match in the recently renamed Kazakh capital, the Scotland side will have been feeling confident.

Their opening two matches of their qualifying group had put them up against Kazakhstan and San Marino. On paper, that looked as close to a guaranteed six points as one could have hoped for from the group.

There were some minor hurdles to navigate from the Kazakh side, namely the distance to travel to the country and the artificial pitch they play on, but for a squad of professional international footballers that shouldn’t have been too much of a concern.

Manager Alex McLeish clearly felt confident, as he opted for a side that while bursting with attacking talent, was largely void of big name stars or the traditional on-pitch leaders within the Scotland camp.

Still, even with the omissions, as Serbian referee Srdjan Jovanovic blew the starting whistle in the Astana Arena those celebrating the navy blue shirts would have been confident. After all, Kazakhstan had only recorded victory in three of their previous 40 competitive fixtures – against Andorra, Latvia and the Faroe Islands.

They weren’t going to be a challenge.

Yet, nobody seemed to pass that message on to the hosts, who buzzed around from the very first seconds in their yellow jerseys. Encouraged by the raucous atmosphere in the stadium, they were up for this match.

And after just six minutes of play, they reminded Scotland that they were here to play as Yuriy Pertsukh latched onto a lofted ball with a lovely touch before lashing home a strike. The home supporters were sent into raptures in the stands as Scotland looked desperately for an offside call that was never going to come.

It was just about the worst start McLeish could have witnessed, but little did anyone know at that point that the wheels had only just started to come off. It was going to become a whole lot worse yet.

Before the clock could even reach double figures, that became abundantly clear when Yan Vorogovskiy inflicted further pain, taking advantage of a sleeping Graeme Shinnie.

Scotland were utterly stunned, much like those watching on, as they found themselves 2-0 down inside 10 minutes to a side they’d expected to breeze past. This had not been on the script.

The one positive for Scotland, it was still early in the game.

However, Kazakh goalkeeper Dmytro Nepohodov obviously decided he was quite keen to add to Scotland’s misery and add a clean sheet to what was set to be a famous victory. Every time Scotland looked like they might have been able to regroup and snatch back a crucial goal, the FC Ordabasy man was there to deny them – in spectacular fashion at times too.

Trouble continued in the second half, as more woeful defending – this time from Scott McKenna – allowed Baktiyar Zainutdinov to out-jump his man and kill off the tie with a smartly finished header.

Already, just five minutes into the second half, the tie was dead in the water and the hosts were all but assured of their famous victory.

Having often been on the losing side of results, they know how to defend and sit back to deny and frustrate opponents. The rest of this match was no different.

Scotland soon discovered themselves playing the match they had predicted from kick off, facing up against a rigid Kazakh defence happy to sit back and soak up pressure comfortably. The only difference, the Scots still lacked real quality while Kazakhstan were riding high on cloud nine, with vocal support from the crowds inside the Astana Arena.

Oh, and the score was still 3-0 in favour of the hosts.

No surprises, therefore, when the final whistle gifted a result of the exact same scoreline. It was a memorable night for those Kazakh players, and one of absolute horror and embarrassment for a woeful Scotland.

Yes, there had always been a banana peel of sorts to slip up on against Kazakhstan from the start, but nobody had truly expected McLeish’s men to actually trip on it. And especially not as spectacularly as they did.

It was a truly embarrassing result – one that will stick with this side for the rest of their EURO 2020 campaign – and that may well have already proven fatal in their pursuit for qualification, given how many competitive teams are in Scotland’s group.

Kazakhstan deserve plaudits for their efforts and display. They were genuinely brilliant on the night.

However, Scotland sat back and underestimated the minnow nation so much that it invited the upset, and it was frankly what was deserved. There were schoolboy mistakes and a real lack of leadership on display in navy and it proved costly.

The one solace for McLeish and Scotland, their next match is against San Marino. Time away from the spotlight and against an opposition of an even easier calibre than the Kazakhs is crucial. Confidence can be rebuilt by racking up the goals in a game that you would expect should be a breeze.

But, they absolutely must not falter in it. An embarrassing 3-0 loss to Kazakhstan is bad. Really bad. But anything over than a resounding victory over San Marino in three days time would be curtains for Scotland and EURO 2020.