PODGORICA, Montenegro: England manager Roy Hodgson said his side’s hopes of reaching the World Cup were “still in our hands” despite the setback of their 1-1 draw with Montenegro.
England were on course to top Group H after Wayne Rooney gave them an early lead in Podgorica on Tuesday, but the visitors wilted in the second half and Montenegro stormed back to equalise with 14 minutes to play.
It leaves Hodgson’s side two points off the pace in the group, and they could be five points behind Montenegro by the time they resume their qualifying campaign in September if Branko Brnovic’s side beat Ukraine in June.
With only the side finishing in first place guaranteed to qualify for the World Cup, England face a fight to overhaul the Montenegrins, but Hodgson believes the fixture list will play in his side’s favour.
England play three of their final four games at Wembley Stadium, with a trip to Ukraine on September 10 the only time they will have to leave their base before the end of the qualifying campaign.
“We’ve got to play Montenegro at home, so it’s in our hands,” Hodgson said.
“We drew (1-1) at home to Ukraine (last September), which we didn’t want. But we’ve got three of our last four games at home.
“We think it’s still in our hands and we intend to make sure we keep it in our hands by winning those matches.”
Hodgson was at a loss to explain why England, having bossed proceedings in the first half, allowed themselves to be pegged back after the interval as the noise inside the Podgorica City Stadium rose and rose.
“I don’t think we were particularly nervous,” he said.
“We didn’t play as well as we could have in the second half, whether that was down to the fact we started playing less well or Montenegro started playing much better – that’s a debating point.
“There was no intention to lessen off in the second half. We wanted to carry on playing as we had in the first half, but it didn’t happen.
“My overall feeling is one of disappointment, because at half-time things were looking good for us and in the end, we’ve had to settle for a draw.”
England could have had a penalty shortly before half-time when Danny Welbeck was brought down after tangling with Stefan Savic, only for the Manchester United player to be booked for diving.
However, Hodgson refused to complain about the incident, and said his side had spurned plenty of chances to double their advantage.
“I don’t think Danny would have been wanting to go down in that situation,” he said.
“But there were several times in the first half when we got in behind their defence and created opportunities for the second goal, but it didn’t come.”
When asked about the penalty incident, Montenegro coach Brnovic compared it with the foul committed by Rooney as he jostled for position at the corner that yielded England’s sixth-minute goal.
“It is possible that there was a penalty, but I don’t know if you’ve seen what Rooney did to (Vladimir) Volkov when he was scoring his goal,” he said.
Brnovic, who sent on Montenegro goal-scorer Dejan Damjanovic at half-time, had taunted England in the build-up to the game by claiming they were “more scared” about the fixture than his side.
He backtracked on his remarks slightly after the match, but was eager to emphasise the scale of his team’s achievements.
“To be honest, I exaggerated a bit before the game because I was slightly provoked, having heard some statements that I didn’t want to hear,” he said.
“But I’ll just say that we’ve been lucky enough to play England three times now without being defeated a single time. And to fight with England and fight for first place is something that not many people expected.”