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The Three Lions have have only managed to beat Moldova and San Marino (twice) in their World Cup qualifying campaign so far, and must find their form against better sides fast

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By Ewan Roberts

It could have been worse, yet it could have been a whole lot better too. England managed to resist a second-half rally from Montenegro to preserve a point and remain within touching distance of the Brave Falcons at the top of Group H, but as the home side threw their shirts into the crowd at full-time it was clear that one team valued the result far more than the other.

Wayne Rooney’s headed goal in the sixth minute had given the Three Lions an early lead, with the Manchester United forward having already hit the woodwork moments earlier. But England would not replicate the threat and intent of that opening exchange until Dejan Damjanovic’s late equaliser had stirred them belatedly back to life.

Unable to kill off their opponents during a strong early showing, Roy Hodgson’s side allowed complacency to creep into their second-half performance, sacrificing momentum to the home team. Montenegro, abject and indifferent in the opening 45 minutes, pressed aggressively after the restart, surging forwards, and England duly wilted.

STATE OF PLAY
Team

1. Montenegro
2. England
3. Poland
4. Ukraine
5. Moldova
6. San Marino
Played

6
6
5
5
6
6
Points

14
12
8
8
4
0
GD

11
18
5
2
-7
-29
“We stopped playing after the break for 20 or 30 minutes and away from home you can’t do that,” assessed skipper Steven Gerrard after the match. “We stopped passing the ball and that’s when we lost control. I think they deserved the equaliser.”

For all the talk of England’s lack of experience and fragile defence sans Rio Ferdinand, it was their inability to retain possession that was most costly; the match thus served to underline the continued importance of Jack Wilshere, whose absence separated Tuesday’s display from the performance and victory over Brazil that has become the benchmark for Hodgson’s England.

With or without Wilshere, however, it has become an increasing trend for England to falter in the second half of matches. In fact, the three goals notched against San Marino on Friday night are the only time in England’s last five outings that they have managed to outscore the opposition in the second period.

The Three Lions lost their nerve in Poland in October, denied victory by Kamil Glik’s 70th-minute equaliser. That was followed by three Zlatan Ibrahimovic strikes in the final 13 minutes of a friendly match against Sweden, while it took just two minutes and 57 seconds after the restart for Fred to equalise for the Selecao in February. England’s capacity to defend leads, and kill off ties, is almost non-existent.

“They don’t give a complete performance,” raged ITV pundit Roy Keane after the match, “and they don’t have that killer instinct. It’s all well and good beating smaller teams but they don’t know how to win big matches.” For all England’s bravado, they’ve yet to beat a side of greater pedigree than Sweden (a 3-2 win in Euro 2012) in a competitive match.

Yet Hodgson moved to praise his side’s resolve in Podgorica, despite snatching draw from the jaws of victory and conceding the kind of scrappy, goal-mouth effort that is more typically seen on village greens or Sunday League pitches, while the rest of the country was left bemused and exasperated by another collapse.

“We hung on well at the end,” explained the England boss, “we shouldn’t be too disappointed.” But there was little credit to be had in the failure to overcome inferior opposition, failure to hold onto a lead and failure to record a competitive win against even a half-decent side.

Barring matches against Moldova and San Marino, ranked 128th and 207th in the world respectively, England have mustered only draws against the other, more competitive, sides in the group, Ukraine, Poland and Montenegro – though England have hardly landed in a group of death, with the three sides boasting an averaging Fifa ranking of just 45th.

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Each performance was riddled with flaws, from naivety to complacency, though the second-half display against Montenegro was also hampered by inaction on the sidelines. With his team visibly under the cosh, Hodgson needed to act to curb the home side’s growing confidence. Instead he did nothing, only intervening with a substitution after the damage had been done.

England’s 65-year-old boss was uncharacteristically belligerent after the match, dismissing concerns regarding his side’s form against better, more robust sides – that is to say, teams that aren’t a rabble of part-timers like the San Marino side that was dispatched on Friday.

“We’ve got three of our last four games at home and the contenders have got to come to us,” vented Hodgson. Yet Wembley offered little respite in September, when it took a very late Frank Lampard penalty to rescue a point against Ukraine.

For now, England fans can at least be buoyed by the prospect of Moldova travelling to London in the next World Cup qualifier, which provides another opportunity to showcase their flat-track bully skills. But if they cannot find a ruthlessness against sides that bite back as well as those that simply roll over, they will struggle to win Group H, let alone the World Cup.

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