It may do little harm that England's advance to the Euro 2012 finals is accompanied by a pensive mood, even a stoppage‑time leveller. There can be no sense that all is right with the team or that it will inevitably prosper in Poland and Ukraine after letting slip a 2-0 lead. Wayne Rooney eradicated any contentment but there will be no gratitude for a forward sent off for the second time in his international career. The belief that he has matured was destroyed in an instant.
Rooney kicked out at Miodrag Dzudovic in the 73rd minute. The spiteful petulance came merely because Rooney had lost possession. He was supposed to have outgrown all that and it can only appal the England manager, Fabio Capello, particularly as the reduction in numbers heartened the hosts. The Montenegro leveller came with Andrija Delibasic heading past Joe Hart after a cross from Dzudovic in stoppage time. Montenegro certainly deserved their place in the play-offs for the tournament.
Rooney will miss one game and possibly two at Euro 2012. Before his departure this match in Podgrica had looked just about under the command of the visitors. Although there were more moments of alarm it was only the loss of Rooney that really altered the occasion. Even when England's lead had been trimmed to 2-1 on the verge of the interval, it did not look inevitable that Montenegro would ultimately be on level terms.
Indeed Capello's side looked for a while as if they were not to be thwarted. This was a line-up whose composition made an attacking style virtually unavoidable. Darren Bent was at centre-forward, with Rooney in close support and a winger on each flank in Theo Walcott and Ashley Young. As if that did not suffice, the teenager Phil Jones made his debut at right-back. It was a selection intended to crackle with energy, particularly since footballers should still be fresh so early in the campaign and he did impress, even if many observers are convinced that Jones will be even more authoritative as a centre-half in the future.
Montenegro, impressive as they proved, had omitted some players with a yellow card to their name so that they would be available to take on Switzerland next Tuesday in Basel. That fixture is no longer relevant to a side now bound for the play‑offs. It was interesting by implication, though, that the manager, Branko Brnovic, saw less prospect of a happy result here. Nonetheless it would be foolish to speak as if Montenegro had sent out a random assortment of footballers to challenge England.
Stefan Savic, for instance, is at Manchester City and the impressive forward Mirko Vucinic is with Juventus. Even so Montenegro needed to muster all their reserves of morale as England not only opened with the attacking intent on which Capello's scheme was founded but also took the lead in the 11th minute. The excellence of Walcott's cross exposed the defence and an untroubled Young headed home.
Capello at that juncture must have been satisfied as well with the orderliness and confidence of his players. The 4-2-3-1 formation is a contemporary cliché, yet its theoretical appeal is obvious. England, before the interval, did indeed switch easily from defensive duties to attacking opportunities but even so there was no chance of capitulation by Montenegro.
England were slicker in that period and Montenegro's reputation for durability suffered once more as the lead was increased after 32 minutes. Rooney picked out Young towards the left and the Manchester United winger's delivery was turned home by Bent, giving him four goals in his last five appearances for England. Even if Brnovic had sent out his very best line-up it should not have been capable, if transfer prices are any guide, of matching the visitors.
In practice Montenegro rise to the occasion at home. On the verge of the interval a delivery from Fatos Beqiraj was controlled on the chest of Elsad Zverotic and his drive found the net with the aid of a deflection off Gary Cahill. It had been a unlikely riposte after England had dominated but they did at least have a lead with the first part of the task accomplished.
The main question was whether the visitors would still have the same confident incisiveness when they returned from the dressing room.
England could not do that. They came through a penalty claim unscathed although it did seem that Jones had made contact with Vucinic in the 53rd minute.
The tone of the night was altering. Montenegro had much more purpose to their work. England did not seem intimidated but neither could they match the earlier ruthlessness. Capello had soon removed both of his scorers. Bent, indeed, made way for a midfielder, Frank Lampard. While the Chelsea player is more than capable of scoring, England had abandoned their policy of carrying the play to Montenegro.
The match seemed scrappier but there was less to separate the sides and the anticipation rose in the crowd. There was a trace of fatigue, too. Although there was the prize of automatic qualification this might have been an informative exercise for Capello. With the early ease vanished, it was a test of this side's capacity to count on their own discipline. Rooney failed the exam comprehensively.