Andros Townsend capped a memorable England debut with a spectacular goal to seal a vital victory over Montenegro at Wembley. In a match that England needed to win to keep their chances of claiming an automatic spot in next year’s World Cup, Roy Hodgson had raised more than a few eyebrows by going against type with a bold selection of the 22-year-old who has less than 20 Premier League appearances to his name. But Townsend came up trumps for Hodgson just as a nervy finale looked in store.
In the first half England had been all too predictable and were unable to break down a Montenegro side that they have drawn with on each of the last three occasions. But there was a perfect start to the second half for the hosts as Wayne Rooney followed up Danny Welbeck’s effort after a dazzling run by Townsend. Following a bizarre own goal by Branko Boskovic just past the hour mark, a comfortable victory looked on the cards. But instead Dejan Damjanovic diverted a shot into the net with 19 minutes remaining to rekindle memories of Montenegro’s comeback from 2-0 down in Podgorica two years ago.
Townsend, though, lively throughout, although not always productive, came up with an emphatic end product with 12 minutes remaining. Daniel Sturridge added extra gloss to the scoreline by converting a penalty deep into injury time. The first part of England’s job had duly been completed and confidence should now be high heading into a must win match with Poland, back at Wembley, on Tuesday.
England began positively, with urgency that reflected the necessity to end a run of draws against the sides providing any competition in their group -- Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine. Townsend was giving early justification for his selection as was regularly involved, running at opponents and cutting in from the left flank. No clear chances came in the opening spell, though, and England’s good early tempo soon tailed off. Meanwhile, Montenegro began to enjoy some better possession and established two lines of four that were well equipped to keep out England’s unimaginative and inflexible 4-4-2 system.
Leighton Baines and Welbeck combined well on a couple of occasions down the left, but the Manchester United forward’s finishing was found wanting. Yet England were being given plenty of encouragement from the away team’s much changed back line, which was looking far from secure. The best chance of the half for England came when Montenegro goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic, making a rare appearance after two years out due to a ban for failing to report attempted match fixing, failed to adequately deal with a shot from Townsend. The ball came straight out for Rooney who, while the angle was tight, should have done better than hit the outside of the post.
Just three minutes after the break, England had a goal that sent a palpable shot of relief around Wembley, not least to Hodgson on the England bench. Townsend created the goal with an electric run that left players for dead down the right. His cross was only headed out to the edge of the box by Stefan Savic and, although Danny Welbeck’s effort was kept out, Rooney was on hand to control and then fire low into the net from close range.
Montenegro showed they weren’t yet done in a match they needed something from to keep their hopes of a first World Cup alive when Damjanovic forced Joe Hart to palm his flicked header away. At the other end more calamity soon ensued to gift England a welcome 2-0 lead.
After Sturridge’s clever back-heel down the left, Welbeck tried to play it back to the Liverpool man in the box but Boskovic was there to make what should have been a simple clearance, yet he instead scuffed the ball bizarrely into the ground and past his own keeper into the corner of the net.
Still an under-manned Montenegro, missing Juventus’s Mirko Vucinic among others, refused to make it an entirely comfortable evening for England. Manchester City forward Stevan Jovetic struck a stunning effort from 25 yards crashing against the cross bar and his side were soon right back in the game.
Substitute Fatos Beqiraj was given too much space just outside the box to fire in a shot that was heading wide of the far post until Damjanovic instinctively stuck out a foot and did well to turn it past Hart. The hushed silence inside Wembley spoke volumes for the tension that suddenly abounded. Instead, the tension was cut short by a man with the youthful exuberance not to be affected by the weight of pressure that so often seems to afflict England’s players.
The dynamic winger showed good strength to shrug off a challenge before unleashing an outstanding effort with his weaker right foot that curled away from Poleksic’s full-stretch dive and crashed into the net off the inside of the post. A positive night was complete in injury time when Sturridge went down under a challenge from Ivan Kecojevic and he was allowed to take the spot kick to get a goal on his first competitive start for his country.
The one disappointment for Hodgson was a booking for Kyle Walker that means he misses the clash with Poland. Ukraine’s victory over the Poles, coupled with their final opponents being minnows San Marino, means that England will surely still need to win their final match to seal their passage to Brazil.