The vaunted strike partnership will take time to gel but Andros Townsend made an instant impression at Wembley
The mood was one of celebration at the final whistle, the relief etched across Roy Hodgson's face in the dugout, but even if a play-off place at least is assured, only half of this job is done. England will be hugely encouraged by their ability to prise apart stubborn, if weakened, opponents at Wembley but Ukraine's victory over Poland in Kharkiv has taken this section to the wire. They will anticipate a thrashing of San Marino on Tuesday. The English need only conjure a slender success to squeeze through to Brazil, but we have all been here before with the Poles. Rewind 40 years and Jan Tomaszewski's excellence denied England a World Cup. Another anxious occasion awaits, with news drifting through disconcertingly of Ukrainian goals from afar. The hosts will be without Kyle Walker in defence following his yellow card for pulling Stevan Jovetic so must draft in Phil Jones or Chris Smalling as a stop-gap. Reorganisation is unwelcome given that the Poles, out of the running but backed by a vociferous support, will surely not be obliging guests.
This was always going to prove a test of patience. Montenegro arrived here as the only side, in 35 matches, to have prevented the English scoring at the revamped national stadium having secured a goalless draw here three years ago. Branko Brnovic's side, denied key personnel through injury, duly sat back and stifled, flooded defence and midfield, and snapped at anything in a white shirt that moved. England players were forever having to thread passes through massed ranks of red into forward areas, however wide they pinned their wingers. Hodgson had seen this all coming, hence his attack-minded selection and even the inclusion of veteran holding midfielders who boasted 49 goals between them. Frank Lampard, the theory went, would offer more of a goal threat than Jack Wilshere's busy energy. Yet, as a nervy first half played out, the anxiety built. Imagine what it is going to be like on Tuesday night as Ukraine run up their cricket score against San Marino and if Poland refuse to wilt.
In the context of all that had preceded the opener, it was strange that England only prospered on the counter-attack themselves to ease the tension. Montenegro, perhaps shrugged out of blanket defence by the knowledge Ukraine had already won, came out for the second period with more urgency and had actually enjoyed time in the hosts' half when Kyle Walker regained possession and sent Andros Townsend scurrying clear. Within seconds Wayne Rooney, in whom frustration had been welling, was scoring a sixth goal in five World Cup qualifiers. England revelled in his presence, even if his partnership with Daniel Sturridge "so slick in training all week" still seemed a work in progress. Rooney did get the opener, while Sturridge's late penalty saw him gain his reward for an improved second-half display, and there were flashes of promise and link-up play, but the understanding needs more work ahead of the Poland game. Indeed, Danny Welbeck was arguably the most threatening of the forwards on show, even from a berth out on the left. Hodgson will consider that a cause for optimism.
The right-field selection had come out of left-field. Townsend has thrived in the Premier League since he was offered regular first-team football on loan at Queens Park Rangers over the second half of last season, and in the time since back at Tottenham Hotspur. Hodgson had been expected to opt for James Milner's steady presence, but this was a time to be bold. The 22-year-old, benefiting from his Spurs team-mate Walker's presence at his back, was fearless from the outset, charging at Milan Jovanovic, his confidence buoyed when an early flick bamboozled the full-back and sent the winger scurrying free. Hodgson had seen Townsend at his best against Chelsea earlier this month, unsettling Ashley Cole at will, and he was asked to hug the touchline, stretch opponents who were banked up and braced, and dribble at pace. It was his charge down the flank that finally prised the Montenegrins apart, and his delivery that should have provided a third. His thumped shot, belted from distance, duly did. This was outstanding.
For a player who has been under so much scrutiny in recent weeks, an evening largely spent watching team-mates lay siege at the other end of the pitch might normally have felt an attractive proposition. But Hart might have craved an early save to settle his nerves. There had been another withering assessment of his form in the build-up, with Roy Keane scathing as a pundit on television. The Manchester City goalkeeper should, said Keane while Theo Walcott squirmed at the Irishman's side, "have been dropped six months ago", was "too arrogant" and "makes far too many mistakes". He could not be faulted for Dejan Damjanovic's goal 19 minutes from time here. Indeed, England had reason to thank Hart for maintaining his concentration, not least when the same striker had flicked goalwards with the lead still slender. The save at full stretch to Hart's left was outstanding. England will need him to conjure similar excellence on Tuesday.