England took a big step toward World Cup qualification with a 4-1 win over Montenegro at Wembley on Friday, but it was not a game without worry or tension until the killer third goal from a debut boy.
Roy Hodgson's side had all the early possession and looked to get Andros Townsend involved early on, who was keen to run at the Montenegro defence while cutting infield.
The home team won a series of early corners, but only a deflected Wayne Rooney effort went close to troubling visiting goalkeeper Vukasin Poleksic. Dejan Damjanovic had the ball in the net on the quarter of an hour mark, but he had already been flagged for offside as he ran beyond the England defence, but they were the only goalmouth incidents of note in the first half hour.
Steven Gerrard went close with a curling effort just afterward, but there were precious few clear-cut openings other than a Rooney shot into the side netting after the keeper had spilled a Townsend effort.
Both teams came out after half-time knowing Ukraine had beaten Poland and therefore only a win would do—a draw would not help either side achieve their aims.
England, therefore, made the perfect start to the second half as Rooney swept them ahead just three minutes into the half, finishing off a rebound from an initial Danny Welbeck shot.
In a perfect opening 15 minutes or so of the half they doubled their lead just after the hour mark, courtesy of a horror own goal from Branko Boskovic, who mis-kicked the ball into his own net after Daniel Sturridge and Welbeck had combined well down the left side.
Stevan Jovetic fired a long-range shot against the crossbar moments later in what was the first real test of the game for Joe Hart. Gerrard should have then made it 3-0 after Rooney cut the ball back to him—but just behind his skipper.
It was a shock, then, to see Montenegro get the next goal of the game as Damjanovic stuck out a foot to divert a wayward shot past Hart into the net with 20 minutes remaining and reignite the game.
Another goal in the game seemed likely, though, and Townsend got it, blasting in a right-footed shot for a debut goal for England.
That was finally enough to seal the win, leaving England back on top of the group—but there was still time for Sturridge to win, and convert, a late penalty.
Key Player Grades
Joe Hart: B
Question marks had been asked of Hart before the game due to recent poor form, but he swept up well outside his penalty area in the first half when Montenegro made sporadic attacks, and made one vital save at 1-0 when he tipped a Damjanovic header around the post. Nothing he could do about the goal.
Stevan Jovetic: C+
Montenegro's best player by some distance, Jovetic tried gamely to pull his side further up the field after the break and struck the bar with a thunderous shot from range but ultimately had too little support from the surrounding midfielders to have enough of a telling impact.
Andros Townsend: B+
Townsend had an electric start to his debut, running at the defence and trying to shoot or thread through-balls from the 20-metre area, but his best impact came after the break. A surging run down the right flank and subsequent right-footed cross brought the opening goal, while his fine debut goal late in the second half eventually sealed the points.
With just one game remaining, England are top of the group and know that a win at home against Poland on Tuesday will seal their passage to Brazil 2014. Montenegro's challenge is over, even if they win heavily in their last game.