Euro 2012 Qualifiers: England firing blanks at Montenegro

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England’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign suffered an embarrassing setback here Tuesday as they were held to a lacklustre 0-0 draw by football minnows Montenegro.

In a result that is certain to see renewed calls for England coach Fabio Capello to be replaced, Montenegro dug in to earn a precious point and remain top of Group G with 10 points from four games.

England, forced to field a third choice strikeforce comprising Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch following injuries to Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, paid the price for failing to turn possession into goalscoring opportunities.

England’s players were also furious with German referee Manuel Grafe, who waved away appeals for what looked like a certain handball on 77 minutes when Milan Jovanovic clearly controlled with his arm in the box.

Montenegro, who only began playing international football in 2007, celebrated wildly at the final whistle with a small pocket of fans at Wembley as boos rang out around the stadium.

Yet England could have few complaints after a toothless display that leaves them with little margin for error if they are now to win the group and qualify automatically for the 2012 finals.

Capello would not comment on the referee’s decision regarding the penalty, though, he was bemused at the small amount of time added on given the number of times the Montenegro physio was on the pitch.

“They are not an easy team to play as they defend really well,” said Capello. “However, we created five chances and they had just one shot which hit the bar. They are a difficult team to beat.”

England captain Rio Ferdinand said that it was an opportunity missed.

“These are the sort of games we should be winning. Maybe we tried too hard but we were solid from back to front. We can take a few positives from it.”

But Ferdinand was incensed by Grafe’s failure to award a penalty.

“He might as well have caught the ball, put it under his shirt and run home with it. But you’ve got to get on with it,” Ferdinand said.

Montenegro coach Zlatko Kranjcar meanwhile could not hide his delight at securing a famous result.

“I think everybody here will agree that we put on a great display and a good performance,” Kranjcar said. “We had a plan to avoid defeat and we made the plan perfectly.”

Kranjcar insisted England remain the favourites to grab the sole automatic qualifying spot from the group, even though they must travel to Montenegro for their final qualifying game in October next year.

“This is a result that exceeds all our expectations — three wins and a draw without conceding a goal is proof we can achieve our goal of reaching the playoffs,” Kranjcar said. “England is still the clear favourite for the group.”

England had earlier dominated the opening exchanges but for all their wealth of possession were unable to threaten Mladen Bozovic in the Montenegro goal, who barely had to make a save in the first half.

Manchester winger Adam Johnson always looked the likeliest player to fashion an opening for England, repeatedly beating fullback Jovanovic with ease only for the final ball to let him down.

At the other end, England goalkeeper Joe Hart was a virtual spectator for the first 45 minutes, hardly touching the ball as a toothless Montenegrin attack missing Mirko Vucinic failed to trouble the home defence.

The second period followed the same pattern as the first, England starting brightly but unable to make their possession count.

Montenegro meanwhile were increasingly willing to incur the wrath of referee Grafe, Stefan Savic and Marko Basa both being booked in quick succession for fouls on Ashley Cole and Ashley Young.

The niggling tactics proved too much for Rooney, who also saw yellow for a petulant trip on Elsad Zverotic.

Rooney, struggling to impose himself on proceedings, should have done better on 59 minutes when played in by Steven Gerrard, only to see his low shot saved by Bozovic, who gathered before Crouch could reach the rebound.

An ill-tempered passage of play then saw Gareth Barry booked for a rugged aerial challenge on substitute Mladen Kascelan, who received a yellow of his own shortly afterwards for upending Young.

Capello’s decision to replace the ineffectual Crouch with Bolton Wanderers veteran Kevin Davies almost paid immediate dividends when the striker managed to hold up a sweeping Glen Johnson pass.

But when the ball fell kindly to Rooney, the out-of-sorts Manchester United striker could only blast his shot straight at Bozovic as a golden chance went begging for Capello’s men.

After England saw their penalty appeals rejected for Jovanovic’s apparent handball, they launched a furious late challenge. Barry went close as the clock ticked down but Montenegro held on.

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