Soccer

England's WC hopes in the balance after Montenegro draw

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Associated Press
3/27/2013 2:04:43 PM
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LONDON -- The English need to realize they aren't as good as they, or FIFA, think they are.

Despite a FIFA ranking as the fourth-best football team, England is in danger of missing out on becoming one of the 32 finalists at the 2014 World Cup to the disbelief of fans who feel the side has a near-divine right to qualify.

What seemed a relatively smooth route to Brazil for England in avoiding any of the leading European teams during qualifying is becoming trickier by the match.

The only wins have come against San Marino and Moldova, both of which are outside FIFA's top 100, with England just managing to draw with the stronger sides in Group H -- Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro.

Just avoiding losing on Wednesday seemed to please coach Roy Hodgson.

"I don't think it's a particularly bad result," he said of the 1-1 draw in Montenegro.

Montenegro is on course to qualify for the World Cup for the first time as an independent nation. With four games to go, the 28th-ranked Balkan nation has a two-point lead over England. If it stays that way, England will likely have to win a playoff to reach the tournament.

"For Montenegro to compete with England and stay on the top of the group is something no one expected," Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic said. "But we managed it."

Not initially, however.

In the first half in Podgorica, England played with the purpose and tenacity, hitting the goal frame twice before Wayne Rooney scored the opener in the sixth minute to steady any nerves.

"There was a lot of experience out there and I think during the first half we showed that," England captain Steven Gerrard said. "We controlled the game."

There was fervour to England's game that is so often lacking. But for all the pressure applied in the first half, with Rooney looking lively alongside United teammate Danny Welbeck, England failed to strengthen its winning position.

"The problem is at 1-0 you're always vulnerable," Gerrard said. "You've got to go on and get the second goal to get complete control, and we never did that."

Hodgson was also hesitant to make any changes, even when it became clear in the second half the game was slipping from England's grasp as its midfield -- anchored by Gerrard and featuring a fading Michael Carrick -- became overrun.

England lost control and Montenegro went from insipid to inspirational.

The inevitable equalizer came in the 76th minute when England failed to clear a corner and Dejan Damjanovic bundled the ball into the net at his second attempt.

Damjanovic had entered the game at halftime, replacing Mitar Novakovic in midfield, and he helped his team regain a foothold in the game.

A second midfield change was made with about half an hour to go, and Montenegro's third substitution came a minute before the leveler when a striker replaced a defender.

Only after conceding did Hodgson make his first -- and only -- substitution, with Ashley Young replacing Tom Cleverley in midfield, leaving strikers Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge to spend the whole night on the bench.

"You're always debating changes," Hodgson said. "But at 1-0 we weren't 100 per cent convinced there was a change we could make to make a vast difference to what was happening on the field."

Gerrard identified the problem, however.

"We stopped playing after the break for 20 or 30 minutes and, away from home, you just can't afford to do that," the midfielder said. "We stopped passing the ball and that's when we lost control, and I think they deserved the equalizer."

Hodgson suggested some players were clinging on to the slender lead rather than trying to add to it.

"We weren't trying to see the game out 1-0, though sometimes it's the only thing you can do if your opponents are having a good time," Hodgson said. "We got close to doing that."

The Daily Mail newspaper's back-page headline was blunt: "Second rate."

In a year when the English Football Association is celebrating its 150th anniversary, the landmark is a reminder that despite being the sport's pioneers the country has only won one major title: the 1966 World Cup.

The way the team is playing, England might not even get the chance to have another shot at the title next year.

"I do believe we will still qualify," Hodgson said. "The players have shown tremendous spirit, even at times when things aren't necessarily going our way, so the determination is still there.

"There is no question we are a very difficult team to beat and we do have a lot of quality."

That's just yet to be reflected in qualifying.

Lampard Rooney Baines (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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