For England, everything now boils down to what happens against Poland on Tuesday. Roy Hodgson's team will need to win, on the basis that Ukraine's opponents are San Marino, but they will go into their final assignment of Group H in a considerably improved frame of mind given the manner in which they moved to within one more victory of qualifying for the World Cup.

It is not an exact science, but if England can play with such distinction again then nobody should be too concerned about everything going horribly wrong. Poland, like Montenegro, are now out of the reckoning. They will still have considerable support inside Wembley but England won this match in a style that suggested they have moved on since those days when Fabio Capello used to say the "shirt weighed heavy" in their own stadium.

There were passing moments when it threatened to be a difficult night and, with the game goalless at half-time, the stadium announcer sounded almost apologetic when he relayed the news that Ukraine, kicking off an hour earlier, had gone to the top of the group by beating Poland. Most of the crowd already knew the score in Kharkiv and, at that stage, there was a palpable sense of apprehension.

Yet Wayne Rooney scored at a good time, three minutes after the restart, to soothe any gathering nerves and the night can ultimately be chalked off as one of the finest occasions of Hodgson's 17 months in the job. Not only did his team ditch their habit of drawing qualifying matches, they played with great adventure and the decision to experiment with Andros Townsend was instrumental. For the Tottenham winger, this will rank as the most rewarding night of his career, capped off with a lovely goal just at the point of the match when a few nerves were creeping back in.

He is the 50th player to win a cap in the Hodgson era and he played with so little caution, always willing to run at his man and drive towards goal, it was worth checking that he did not actually start his first Premier League match, on loan at QPR, until February. A second cap will surely arrive on Tuesday bearing in mind the way the way his speed, agility and running power made him such a menace. He was prominently involved in the move that led to Rooney opening the scoring and his own effort, to make it 3-1, was wonderfully timed given that Dejan Damjanovic had turned a misdirected Fatos Beqiraj shot beyond Joe Hart seven minutes earlier.

The night was not totally devoid of irritations for Hodgson, with Kyle Walker's booking meaning he will be suspended against the Poles, but he can still be greatly encouraged, not just because of the number of chances his team racked up, but also the way they held their nerve in the more challenging moments. There was never a single point when they threatened to lose control and, when Branko Boskovic's own-goal made it 2-0, England really should have spared themselves that brief period of worry bearing in mind the frequency with which they opened up the Montenegrin defence. Despite being beaten four times, Vukasin Poleksic was probably the outstanding performer for Branko Brnovic's team. At other times, particularly in the first half, England were denied only by their own finishing.

Those were moments when the crowd had to fight off the apprehension. The weather before the match had already brought back memories of the infamous night against Croatia that had washed away England's hopes of reaching Euro 2008 and there was a palpable shift in the mood as the news started to filter through that Ukraine were winning. The volume went down immediately and the sense of foreboding during that part of the night was not eased by the fact that Montenegro were defending with great togetherness.

England could not be accused of conservatism, though. Townsend's selection ahead of James Milner, one of Hodgson's favourites, was a clear indication of their strategy. His first run with the ball took him past his man. Over and again, we saw the same thing happening, and it was one of those bursts of acceleration that instigated the first goal.

Stefan Savic could only half-clear the cross and the rebound, after Poleksic had reached Danny Welbeck's first effort, fell to Rooney directly in front of goal. Rooney had wasted England's best chance of the first half from another rebound, after Townsend's left-foot drive, but this time he steadied himself, then scored with his left foot.

At times England played with a bold, attacking 4-2-4 line-up.

Daniel Sturridge, such an elusive opponent, created problems all evening, finally getting his goal from the penalty spot, having been fouled by Ivan Kecojevic deep into stoppage-time. Rooney was prominently involved and Welbeck, just like Townsend on the opposite flank, was full of energy and direct running.

Montenegro were far more restrained, only sporadically examining whether Joe Hart might be vulnerable, and it came as a jolt when Damjanovic instinctively stuck out his leg to score their goal.

Nine minutes earlier, Boskovic had tried to clear Welbeck's cutback only for the ball to shoot off his foot at completely the wrong angle and beat his own goalkeeper and, though Stevan Jovetic cracked a 30-yard shot against the crossbar shortly afterwards, the home side missed more chances than they will care to remember before Damjanovic's breakaway goal.

Hodgson had left out Jack Wilshere to accommodate Frank Lampard alongside Gerrard on the night his captain equalled Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 106 caps. His team selection, he explained afterwards, was among the most difficult of his tenure. Yet he got it spot on.

After 78 minutes, Townsend spun away from the nearest opponent, Simon Vukcevic, accelerated towards goal and unleashed a right-foot effort that curled away from Poleksic into the bottom corner. Wembley gave him a standing ovation when he was substituted and on Tuesday he deserves the chance to do it all over again.