Wayne Rooney's shot at exorcism turns sour for England

This should have been about Wayne Rooney achieving redemption, with the perceived natural order restored and England back resplendent at the summit of their qualifying section.

Instead, as the acrid smoke from the flares ignited at each end of this cramped arena drifted into the night sky and the home support bellowed their appreciation all around, Roy Hodgson and his staff trudged across the turf choked by numbing disappointment. An opportunity had been missed and, with six months to endure before competitive action is revisited, memories of Montenegro will continue to unnerve.

They could claim this was actually a point gained, given how revitalised their hosts had proved after the interval, driving the English back towards the most vociferous banks of Balkan support. Joe Hart's heroics, not least in the frenzy just before Dejan Damjanovic rammed in the home side's equaliser at the third attempt, reflected a scorching of visiting ranks. Mirko Vucinic, Damjanovic and Stevan Jovetic tore at England after Branko Brnovic's initial caution was cast aside in his pursuit of an equaliser, the defence heaving under a wave of attacks. All this was a reminder that England have still to defeat any team of note in this section. Running up cricket scores against San Marino and Moldova is to be expected.

Yet even if a point felt unlikely reward at times, the frustration that will haunt the management through the summer will centre on England's inability to have secured this contest when they enjoyed the ascendancy. This was the type of performance that dogged Sven-Goran Eriksson's tenure – "first half good, second half not so good". There were also parallels with the team's last visit here under Fabio Capello in October 2011, the visitors having permitted early dominance to dwindle, the momentum swinging violently back towards those in red and yellow when the contest might have long since been over. Frailties were exposed, sloppiness took over. It was all too familiar.

The qualities that had thrust them ahead, composure on the ball and care in the pass, were swept aside as soon as dominance was surrendered in central midfield. Steven Gerrard suggested they had "stopped playing" for half an hour. The same had happened 17 months ago. England had needed only a point that night to secure their group and passage to the European Championship – they could have done with all three here – and therein lay the real regret, eclipsing Rooney's personal shot at atonement in the process. This should have been his night, so inspired had he been through the opening period. Yet he ended up skulking from the pitch, that familiar snarl plastered across his face with the evening having veered away from him and his team.

Montenegro had still been tentatively feeling their way when Gerrard's sixth-minute corner arced into the six-yard box and, having subtly eased Vladimir Volkov off balance, the Manchester United striker rose slightly off the floor to nod down and in. It was a goal of utter simplicity but a brutal way to suffocate the local support's optimism. That would return in time but it was as if the home defence had not seen Rooney coming: that the deafening boos which greeted the announcement of "No10, Wayne Rooney" before kick-off would somehow leave him cowed. His petulant kick at Miodrag Dzudovic in this arena 17 months ago had cost him a red card and, ultimately, involvement in half of England's campaign at Euro 2012. He had history here and ghosts to exorcise.

England relished Rooney's tigerish impact that had already led him to skip into space down the right and, having spotted Mladen Bozovic off his line, chip on to the base of the far post well before he headed in that opening goal. They had seen the signs the night before when training in the deluge. He had been a blur of energy throughout that final session and, when time was up amid the forks of lightening, the 27-year-old had to be virtually dragged from the turf, that flicker of intent in his eyes restored.

His 26th competitive goal for his country – a tally that moved him level with Michael Owen – means he has scored in four successive qualifying games, the first England player to do so since David Beckham in 2003. There have been 16 goals for club and country since the start of December, which is the type of form either to prompt talks over a new contract or attract interest from Paris St-Germain.

For long periods he was a man possessed but it was his all-round game that made him appear unplayable. He darted into pockets of space, ever eager to unsettle Stefan Savic. When he was not tormenting the full-back, Rooney was drifting into midfield to pick up possession and spark counter-attacks, his eager club-mates, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley, snapping in at pace to participate.

The problem was it did not yield a second goal and, as England lulled, so Rooney drifted from the fray and his mood soured. He will always be a player whose temper can turn in a second, all the demons roaring back in, and the sloppiness that set in for much of the second period tested his maturity. There was one rant at a linesman and screamed exasperation when another pass went astray. He departed down the tunnel at the final whistle as if a cloud was hovering above his head, smouldering at the wastefulness of it all. His personal reward in Podgorica felt diminished; England departed only with regret.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield at Podgorica City Stadium, for The Guardian on Wednesday 27th March 2013 00.52 Europe/London

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