After an early scare, England convincingly beat Montenegro, 5-1 on Monday night, in their second qualification game for the 2020 European Championships. None other than Chelsea’s Ross Barkley and Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his very first start for his country, were the two most prominent figures in achieving this important victory against a compact and initially resilient home side.
The game certainly wasn’t as one-sided as the final scoreline might suggest — at least in the first half — as England tried to start quickly, but Montenegro defended astutely, constantly harassing players in possession and forcing them into several errors. England tried their best to emulate Friday’s performance against the Czech Republic, but Montenegro had done their homework.
Callum Hudson-Odoi started brightly as he looked to take on his defender(s) as often as possible, successfully putting in one or two dangerous crosses early on. However, defensively, the 18-year old switched off on a few occasions which led to Kyle Walker shouting at him to pull himself together. Fortunately, he did so right quick to become a constant threat on both wings, though not before playing a part in Montenegro’s opening goal.
Marko Vesovic is hardly a goal-threat at club level (19 goals in 275 career appearances), but he certainly showed no hesitation in knifing through England’s right flank, after pouncing on a very poor clearing header from Everton’s Michael Keane, and curling past Everton’s Jordan Pickford with expert ease in the 17th minutes. Hudson-Odoi had lost the initial header on the long ball forward from the home side, though in fairness he should not be expected to win too many against 190cm center forwards (though he should be expected to at least jump and challenge for the ball).
A weakness in the past, it was now up to England to react and look for an equalizer. One thing Gareth Southgate certainly has been able to bring to this squad is a better mentality; while the Three Lions might have lowered their heads in the past, this team didn’t take long to come back. In the 30th minute, Keane made amends as he got on the end of a peach of a ball in from a Ross Barkley free kick, doing well to tower above an, up until then, immaculate Montenegro defense. 1-1, game on!
The hosts didn’t roll over and give up, however. Montenegro did well to keep up with an England team that didn’t seem as cohesive or well-oiled as just a few days earlier. Some sloppy passing, slow build-up play and instances of miscommunication were the distinctive features of England’s first half. The game was still wide open.
But then Sterling and Hudson-Odoi switched flanks, and suddenly England found their groove. The latter did exceptionally well almost immediately to create a chance for an unmarked Sterling at the far post, who unfortunately wasn’t able to capitalize. Callum didn’t take long to come up with another moment of brilliance as he pulled the trigger on a curling effort from the top of the penalty box after rinsing two defenders. The shot may or may not have been heading on target, but on the way through, Ross Barkley took a deft touch to steer it past Petkovic. A goal made in Chelsea! 2-1 England as half-time beckoned.
England’s start to the second half was again a slow one, and Montenegro pressed hard for the equalizer in the opening 10 minutes. This slow start to the half was quite similar to the one against the Czechs, and Ross Barkley topped things off by being awarded a comical yellow card in the 53rd minute for ‘taking a free kick too early’, apparently.
Thankfully for the Three Lions, a huge goal on the hour mark from that man again, Ross Barkley, put them up 3-to-1, and essentially sealed the game. The move was started by Ross himself, finding Sterling on the right this time, who danced past several defenders and looked to cut back the ball towards the penalty spot. The pass took a slight deflection, but that only made it fall even kinder to Barkley. The Chelsea midfielder made no mistake and scored his second of the night. 3-1 England.
Several substitutions followed and the game started to slip out of the home side’s grasp as their strength dwindled. England captain Harry Kane confirmed that with his customary goal in the 70th minute. Barkley was once again at the heart of an England move which lead to a goal, threading a delightful pass through to an on rushing Sterling, who then again squared it to a completely unmarked Kane. 4-1 England.
Montenegro were down and out. England took advantage for a fifth in the 81st minute, a goal most notable for not having had a Chelsea player involved in. 5-1 England.
Rounding off an absolutely brilliant performance, Ross Barkley earned a standing ovation from the travelling England supporters as Southgate subbed him off in the aftermath of the goal. For Barkley, who picked up an assist in both internationals this break, these were his first international goals since 2015. While his displays in a Chelsea shirt haven’t always been overly good, he really is doing bits for England at the moment. Sterling was certainly a deserving recipient of the Man of the Match award, but Ross surely came very, very close.
From a Chelsea perspective, the game could not have gone any better. Both of our representatives contributed greatly to England’s success and goals. The days of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole wearing an England shirt may be long gone, but our current pair, together with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who missed out through injury, could very well end up representing Chelsea for a long time to come!