Expectations don’t match reality again for England

The English need to realize they aren’t as good as they, or

FIFA, think they are.

Despite a FIFA ranking as the fourth-best football team, England

is in danger of missing out on becoming one of the 32 finalists at

the 2014 World Cup to the disbelief of fans who feel the side has a

near-divine right to qualify.

What seemed a relatively smooth route to Brazil for England in

avoiding any of the leading European teams during qualifying is

becoming trickier by the match.

The only wins have come against San Marino and Moldova, both of

which are outside FIFA’s top 100, with England just managing to

draw with the stronger sides in Group H – Poland, Ukraine and

Montenegro.

Just avoiding losing on Wednesday seemed to please coach Roy

Hodgson.

”I don’t think it’s a particularly bad result,” he said of the

1-1 draw in Montenegro.

Montenegro is on course to qualify for the World Cup for the

first time as an independent nation. With four games to go, the

28th-ranked Balkan nation has a two-point lead over England. If it

stays that way, England will likely have to win a playoff to reach

the tournament.

”For Montenegro to compete with England and stay on the top of

the group is something no one expected,” Montenegro coach Branko

Brnovic said. ”But we managed it.”

Not initially, however.

In the first half in Podgorica, England played with the purpose

and tenacity, hitting the goal frame twice before Wayne Rooney

scored the opener in the sixth minute to steady any nerves.

”There was a lot of experience out there and I think during the

first half we showed that,” England captain Steven Gerrard said.

”We controlled the game.”

There was fervor to England’s game that is so often lacking. But

for all the pressure applied in the first half, with Rooney looking

lively alongside United teammate Danny Welbeck, England failed to

strengthen its winning position.

”The problem is at 1-0 you’re always vulnerable,” Gerrard

said. ”You’ve got to go on and get the second goal to get complete

control, and we never did that.”

Hodgson was also hesitant to make any changes, even when it

became clear in the second half the game was slipping from

England’s grasp as its midfield – anchored by Gerrard and featuring

a fading Michael Carrick – became overrun.

England lost control and Montenegro went from insipid to

inspirational.

The inevitable equalizer came in the 76th minute when England

failed to clear a corner and Dejan Damjanovic bundled the ball into

the net at his second attempt.

Damjanovic had entered the game at halftime, replacing Mitar

Novakovic in midfield, and he helped his team regain a foothold in

the game.

A second midfield change was made with about half an hour to go,

and Montenegro’s third substitution came a minute before the

leveler when a striker replaced a defender.

Only after conceding did Hodgson make his first – and only –

substitution, with Ashley Young replacing Tom Cleverley in

midfield, leaving strikers Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge to

spend the whole night on the bench.

”You’re always debating changes,” Hodgson said. ”But at 1-0

we weren’t 100 percent convinced there was a change we could make

to make a vast difference to what was happening on the field.”

Gerrard identified the problem, however.

”We stopped playing after the break for 20 or 30 minutes and,

away from home, you just can’t afford to do that,” the midfielder

said. ”We stopped passing the ball and that’s when we lost

control, and I think they deserved the equalizer.”

Hodgson suggested some players were clinging on to the slender

lead rather than trying to add to it.

”We weren’t trying to see the game out 1-0, though sometimes

it’s the only thing you can do if your opponents are having a good

time,” Hodgson said. ”We got close to doing that.”

The Daily Mail newspaper’s back-page headline was blunt:

”Second rate.”

In a year when the English Football Association is celebrating

its 150th anniversary, the landmark is a reminder that despite

being the sport’s pioneers the country has only won one major

title: the 1966 World Cup.

The way the team is playing, England might not even get the

chance to have another shot at the title next year.

”I do believe we will still qualify,” Hodgson said. ”The

players have shown tremendous spirit, even at times when things

aren’t necessarily going our way, so the determination is still

there.

”There is no question we are a very difficult team to beat and

we do have a lot of quality.”

That’s just yet to be reflected in qualifying.