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Mar 27, 2013

England slip up after second-half salvo

It is just as well England are visiting Brazil this summer. There is no guarantee they will be making a return trip 12 months later. They head to Rio de Janeiro for a friendly on June 2 with the reality that, though they have defeated Brazil and Italy in glamour friendlies this season, their only scalps in competitive football are those of the minnows - Moldova and San Marino.

It means they probably have to win all four remaining games to top Group H. For the second time in as many seasons, they lost a lead in Montenegro. The first match cost them the services of the sent-off Wayne Rooney for the first two matches of Euro 2012. The second may yet deny them a place at the 2014 World Cup.

In a game of two halves, England were a team of two halves: excellent going forward in the first half, fragile at the back thereafter. Whatever the contents of their half-time team talks, Branko Brnovic's proved far more effective than Roy Hodgson's.

The warning signs were there long before Dejan Damjanovic bundled in Montenegro's equaliser. Like their hosts had done earlier, England struggled to defend corners and, but for Joe Hart and his woodwork, they may have departed defeated. The fault does not lie completely with Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, but the fourth-choice central defenders for the two Manchester clubs are the obvious scapegoats nonetheless. The reserves hardly enhanced their reputations. Short of first-team football, it was understandable that they lacked conviction and communication.

Perhaps Rio Ferdinand would have done better, had he not opted out in a bid to stay fit for Manchester United, but perhaps he was booked in as a pundit for Qatari television on the wrong night. This was the time for an expert assessment of England's central defenders; certainly they lacked the authority Ferdinand has brought to United of late. A focus on him, however, obscures the reality that Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Michael Dawson were also injured and also missed.

Moreover, England should have shielded their new-look defence better. When Montenegro made attacking substitutions and committed men forward in the second half, they had the opportunity to control the game. The midfield did not take it. Prominent as Steven Gerrard was, the same could not be said of Tom Cleverley. The 23-year-old is a favourite of Hodgson's and England's only ever-present this season but failed to impose himself upon a game that became increasingly awkward. Once again, England could wonder if another remnant of the golden generation might have been a superior option, but Frank Lampard was an unused substitute.

Ultimately, they could be grateful that Montenegro were so tentative before the break. After Brnovic's bold pre-match words, his tactics hinted at an unexpected inferiority complex with Mirko Vucinic starting on the right flank. When the Juventus forward was shifted to the middle of the attack, he exerted far more of an influence. Then it became apparent that Montenegro's strength is their strikers, Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, just as England's weakest department is the centre of the defence.

The most encouraging signs came further forward. Danny Welbeck and James Milner can seem the most defensive wingers available to Hodgson but, in their distinct ways, they impressed, the United man with his direct running and the City player with a series of enticing crosses.

As the spearhead of the 4-2-3-1 formation, Rooney flourished at the start, hitting the post with a delightful chip and heading in Gerrard's corner, even if the outcome meant it was not quite the redemptive return to Montenegro it appeared. He has six goals in five internationals and continues to chase down Bobby Charlton's England record of 49. Yet praise should be qualified until his record at major tournaments improves and it is far from certain he will get the chance to remedy it next year.

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