Montenegro claim moral high ground over England
Tiny Montenegro left Wembley Stadium as the moral victors after holding England to a Euro 2012 Group G 0-0 draw on a night of huge frustration for Fabio Capello`s sixth-ranked team on Tuesday.
The nature of the match clearly did not matter to the visitors as they celebrated at the end as if they had won -- and they would have done if Milan Jovanovic`s dipping left-foot volley had been inches lower and not crashed against the crossbar with goalkeeper Joe Hart well beaten after 83 minutes.
A defeat would have been harsh for the home side despite a poor performance because they created most of the chances in a largely forgettable game and were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty by German referee Manuel Grafe when Jovanovic clearly handled in the penalty area six minutes earlier.
But although they dominated possession and gave Montenegro keeper Mladen Bozovic a far busier night than Hart, England, ranked 34 places higher than Montenegro by FIFA, showed the same old failings that saw them held to a 0-0 draw by Algeria in the World Cup finals.
That performance in Cape Town in June was arguably England`s worst for a generation, and this was not much better as their passing was poor, their work-rate patchy and their approach play pedestrian.
Montenegro in contrast, were happy to sit back and soak up what pressure did come their way, and their new Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjcar outthought his counterpart Capello.
He countered the threat from England`s young exciting wide men Ashley Young and Adam Johnson who started brightly but faded with two defenders blocking their avenues, and when England did get forward, their defenders were equal to them.
The result was of huge significance for Europe`s youngest soccer nation against the world`s oldest.
Montenegro only joined UEFA as an independent nation in 2007 and with a population of 620,000 they have wildly exceeded their expectations in this competition.
If they were to reach the Euro 2012 finals they would be the smallest country ever to reach the finals.
Seeded fifth of the five nations in Group G when the draw was made in February, they came to the game as group leaders after 1-0 wins over Wales, Bulgaria and Switzerland and left still three points clear of England with a game extra played.
They also did it without three of their best players including Mirko Vucinic who scored the winner against both Wales and Switzerland but was missing with a hamstring injury.
England, in contrast, also came into the match suffering from injuries to definite starters John Terry and Darren Bent.
Even allowing for that, England`s resources are far greater than Montenegro`s -- but that was never in evidence on Tuesday.
England midfielder Gareth Barry told reporters afterwards: "It was disappointing and frustrating and they made it very tough for us.
"We didn`t have the space to break them down, we kind of expected that. We tried to get the ball wide, but they closed us down.
"If that shot had gone in, they would have walked away with three points, but on the other hand, we still have seven points out of nine and we still have qualification in our own hands."
Montengero have 10 points from 12 and a place in Ukraine and Poland is now not the improbable dream it seemed before the qualifiers begun.
Kranjcar told reporters that their aim was to try to finish second in the group and make the playoffs but he revised that view on Tuesday.
"It was not a miracle and although it was a result that exceeded our expectations, it proves this team has the strength and talent to reach its goal which is the playoffs.
"But who knows, if we have our full strength team back a year from now when we play England in Podgorica and if that game was to decide who goes to the finals, I think we could even finish in first place. I still think England are the favourites, but who can tell?"
The only Englishmen likely to remember the night are defender Ashley Cole and debutant Kevin Davies.
Cole, who, as ever, was one of the few Englishmen to play well, equalled Kenny Sansom`s record of 86 appearances by an England left-back while Davies, 33, who came on as a 70th minute substitute for Peter Crouch, became England`s oldest debutant since Leslie Compton of Arsenal made his England debut aged 38 in 1950.