Futures and pasts fail to fire England
A Montenegrin bus parked in the finest Scottish traditions, a series of chances that were snatched at best and a chorus of boos. Fabio Capello cannot repeat the 100% home record that powered his last qualifying campaign. It was a Wembley evening to bring the doubts back into focus. And Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard, the last of these quiet as compared to the rustiness of the other two, all offered cause for concern.
Credit must be handed to Montenegro, especially as they rather calmly achieved stalemate without their two best known players in Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic. And they might even have won it, as Capello was happy to acknowledge. "We were lucky. One shot hit the bar," he said of a Milan Jovanovic strike that had Joe Hart flailing in its wake. He will find less happy fortune in the fact that, as at the World Cup, he has leading players out of form.
The scoreline threw up unhelpful images of Cape Town and Algeria though Capello will not be inviting such comparisons. "Against Algeria we create not a lot of chances. This evening, we create five good chances," he said, though he was being somewhat disingenuous. Peter Crouch, in the opening minute, toe-poked wide and would later head the best opportunity wide of Mladen Bozovic's otherwise supremely-guarded net. Thereafter, Bozovic and his defence were equal to all that England threw at them.
Trusting Adam Johnson and Ashley Young has opened the boss to criticism from those still unwilling to forget the pains of South Africa. Those omitted then and in form now have been used as sticks to browbeat the Italian, yet poor press relations have been a facet of his long and previously unimpeachable career. Despite the efforts of some hacks to suggest to Capello that his reputation is now besmirched forever by his England adventure, he was still happy to shrug off this disappointment as "one game".
"We have to play five games more," he said in reference to a qualifying schedule that throws up Montenegro away last of all. "I think we have a good team," he continued before paying tribute to an opponent that played "compact" with the "quality of the play being good, like old Yugoslavia players".
"I think they are in a good psychological moment after three games," he said after repeatedly praising Bozovic and setting his sights on a Wales game "we have to win".
Moving on and refusing to dwell on the past may seem convenient but it is the only way for Don Fabio's regime to progress. However, talk of new beginnings will be hushed by a display that had 0-0 written all over it from a significant way out. Increasing desperation from the crowd was matched by a noticeable lack of belief from England's players, as half-chances failed to provide a goal that was never likely to come.
"The past is the past" was the riposte given after Bulgaria were defeated in the opening Euro qualifier, and the wingers were eager to prove that the future is theirs. Adam Johnson was the marginally more impressive, his trickery more in evidence than Young. Both players man the opposite wing to their chosen foot but the left-sided Johnson seemed more capable of escaping into open territory than the right-sided Young did on the left.
Despite an early winding run into the area only stopped by a slashing foul from Djalovic, Young may have to do far more to step ahead of James Milner, similarly right-footed but suspended here, to bag that left-sided position. A desire to please got the better of Young when clearly diving to try and win a penalty. Fairness to Young should be dealt when pointing out that by the time of his replacement by the ever mystifying presence of Shaun Wright-Phillips, Young had begun to look an equal threat to his Manchester City counterpart, who was by then suffering from his own lack of ideas.
Ferdinand, the captaincy restored, has been keen this week to cast himself as a man for future seasons, but the doubts cannot subside. What looked an injurious early tackle on Pekovic looked of the type that has made recent headlines for the likes of Messrs Henry and De Jong, though the victim eventually got up as play continued and Montenegro threatened. Ferdinand required a snatched shot from Djalovic to save his blushes. The low attacking ambition of Montenegro did not provide much else of a test.
A source of further concern will have been a shrunken showing from Gerrard. Perhaps with one eye on the High Court and the future of Liverpool Football Club, his influence was significantly lessened than in comparison to recent England performances. Some will point to a lack of an armband as cause for his quietness.
Yet none of those performances was as troubled as that of Wayne Rooney. The sight of him actually playing football was almost a curiosity, given his absence from Manchester United's ranks in recent weeks. The reasons behind his recent 'rest' are much speculated on, but there is no doubt that we are currently viewing a different Rooney. Unrecognisable from the elemental force of a year ago, and significantly less influential than against Bulgaria, that worrying dimming of his light continued here. Snatched shots, misplaced passes and a silly booking were all evidence of a young man whose touch, while not quite deserting him, is undoubtedly strained in its relations with the sometime Manchester United man.
It all called for a new hero. And that man was Kevin Cyril Davies, 33-years-young and playing with the zest of an eager-to-please teenage stripling. His arrival on 69 minutes for Peter Crouch brought the loudest cheer of a quiet Wembley night. In usual style, his first touch was a foul but his second was England's best cross of the night, though no-one got on its end. His third, a snap shot, squirmed to Rooney but his new partner's luck continued to be out and Montenegro smuggled clear. Another Davies trademark also made an appearance, the requisite booking delivered by referee Herr Grafe for - what else? - backing into an opponent.
Sadly, being goal-shy is another accusation made against the South Yorkshireman, and no winning strike was forthcoming. His will have to remain a cult heroism for now, and by England's next game - in 2011 - the likes of Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent shall be shoving him to the back of the queue again. By the time his 24 minutes of fame were up, he had not provided the battering ram to smash down a wall of Balkan ballast that was so strong-arm in its approach that Capello admitted that his decision not to bring on Jack Wilshere was because of a physicality the Arsenal youngster might struggle against.
Wilshere shall remain a new hope, but there is no doubt that his elder colleagues had suffered their own struggles. Old problems, some of them with a new hue, have reared up and shown their head.
MEN OF THE MATCH - Gareth Barry was England's most adequate performer, a worry in itself considering his ancillary role but the organisation of keeper Bozovic and his nominal defensive four of Basa, Dzudovic, Milan Jovanovic and Savic were the key in frustrating England, give or take Jovanovic's clear handball.
ENGLAND VERDICT: It could have been different if Crouch had bagged those early chances but as half-time loomed so did 0-0 on the horizon. Rooney was woeful at times, with only his desire not to hide to his credit but this was a performance to wipe from the memory banks as quickly as possible.
MONTENEGRO VERDICT: Not exactly ambitious but united in their aim, this was a mission accomplished with more comfort than they might have expected. They are not afraid to dish out fouls either, and seemed to have worked out a rota to collect yellow rather than red cards.