After the high of a five-star showing at Wembley on Friday, there was always a danger of this trip to Podgorica being a case of after the Lord Mayors Show. England’s previous trips to Montenegro had ended in frustrating draws and injury doubts saw Southgate pick a much changed lineup. Dele Alli was passed fit to start in midfield but Southgate opted to leave Jordan Henderson on the bench, start Ross Barkley and hand Declan Rice his first England start. In defence Danny Rose was a surprise starter ahead of Ben Chilwell and Callum Hudson-Odoi got his first start in attack at the expense of Jadon Sancho.
England started confidently and dominated possession but couldn’t convert their dominance into clear-cut chances. They were made to pay Mark Vesovic got free down the right, shook off Hudson-Odoi and Michael Keane before drilling a shot into the left corner 1-0. It gave Montenegro renewed confidence and they continued to threaten down the right where Hudson-Odoi offered little protection to Kyle Walker. But England continued to play down the channels and probe the Montenegro defence and were rewarded on 30 minutes when Barkley’s pinpoint free kick found the head of Keane to draw England level.
England began to dominate with Barkley increasingly influential and Rice commanding at the base of midfield. Hudson-Odoi switched flanks with Raheem Sterling and terrified the Montenegro defence with his burst of speed and close control and inevitably it was Hudson-Odoi who broke the deadlock. The Chelsea youngster was sent away down the left by Harry Kane and his teasing ball was prodded home by Barkley for a 2-1 halftime lead.
England began the second half in sloppy fashion, allowing Montenegro to re-establish a foothold in the game. But forced to commit men forward to chase the game Montenegro were always vulnerable at the back and England settled the match on 59 minutes when some determined running from Sterling saw him burst down the right before crossing for Barkley to push home his second for 3-1.
England were now in total control with Sterling again reeking havoc and laying on a simple chance for Harry Kane to make it 4-1 on 71 minutes. Sterling got the goal his performance deserved when he rounded off a fine team move for 5-1 on 80 minutes. Sadly England’s brilliant performance was overshadowed by appalling racist abuse directed at Sterling and Danny Rose by the Montenegro ultras. It was a depressing reminder of football’s dark side and outdated attitudes in certain parts of Europe.
After the game Southgate spoke passionately about the need to protect his players and talked with great humility about the ongoing problem of racism in football. It was an unfortunate way to end a spectacular week for England on the pitch with the Three Lions recording back to back 5 goal performances for the first time since 1984. The performances of Sterling and Barkley over the two games were sensational with both now delivering on the promise their early England careers hinted at. Southgate now has numerous selection headaches when selecting his squad for the Nations League with the likes of Rice, Hudson-Odoi and Keane pushing their claims whilst others pulled out injured.
England will not return to qualifying until September but have already established a tight grip on the group with their rivals already playing for second spot. Next up it’s the Nations League and a chance to win England’s first trophy of the millenium.