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Kick in the Balkans might wake up England

England's failure to claim victory in Montenegro might give them the wake-up call they need in World Cup qualifying, says Martyn Ziegler.

Last Updated: 27/03/13 at 10:38 Post Comment   

Wayne Rooney: Superb in first half

Wayne Rooney: Superb in first half

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A painful kick in the Balkans brought England back down to earth just as Roy Hodgson's men had been looking like world beaters.

After a 45 minutes in which a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney led an inspired England in a first half of spirit, verve and no little skill, thoughts might already have turned to the World Cup in Brazil next year.

But a Montenegro side with a burgeoning reputation and more than decent home record ensured that reality reasserted itself - England started to exude caution then fear and finally blind panic as the home side forced a 1-1 draw.

This is by no means a terrible result for Hodgson. There is nothing more destructive to England's hopes in a major tournament than the weight of unrealistic expectation, so it may be no bad thing for the nation's feet to be returned to planet earth for the run-in to Brazil.

Hodgson's task is to focus on how to extend the sort of dominance they enjoyed in a tremendous first half in a compact stadium in Podgorica.

It was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man from Manchester United.

Rooney returned to the scene of one of his infamous England moments - a red card in a Euro 2012 qualifier - to keep his head and use it to take an early lead.

Rooney began the match as though he was 17 again, full of that suppressed fury expressed as pure energy and inspiration.

Long ball merchants? Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic must have been regretting that taunt as with less than three minutes gone as Rooney floated a chip so delightful that time stood still to admire its flight, with Montenegro keeper Mladen Bozovic a bewildered, flat-footed spectator as the ball dropped over him and, so unfairly, struck the upright and bounced out.

The home fans had not forgotten his red card, jeering him mercilessly before kick-off, but soon silenced by a mature and dominating performance that within three minutes of hitting the post heading in firmly from Steven Gerrard's corner.

In doing so, Rooney took his tally of England goals to 35, his fifth in consecutive internationals.

And in the week following the announcement of 40-goal Michael Owen's retirement, the prospect of a 27-year-old Rooney going on to supersede the all-time mark of Sir Bobby Charlton looks very real.

There were plenty of other incidents for England to build on - Glen Johnson hit a terrific short from long range that was tipped onto the bar.

Danny Welbeck should have had a penalty but was instead cautioned for a dive - a ludicrous decision.

But if Montenegro were tame in the first half they were tigerish in the second, given hope after England failed to build on their dominance.

Time and again the home side came close, denied either by Joe Hart or their own poor finishing.

Stevan Jovetic headed just wide, Juventus' highly-rated striker Mirko Vucinic wasted a number of opportunities before Dejan Damjanovic finally equalised - a pinball wizard scoring at the third attempt.

In the end, it was relief for England to fly home with a point - despite a late free-kick from Gerrard that went perilously close - but there will be the nagging feeling about what might have been.

England need to be more clinical, more streetwise and most of all have Rooney at his world-class best for all of a match rather than half.

Only then can England even entertain the prospect of standing up to the big boys in Brazil next year.

By Martyn Ziegler, Chief Reporter, Press Association Sport. Follow him on Twitter at @martynziegler.

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