England’s passage to the World Cup got distinctly more hazardous after a Jekyll and Hyde performance in Montenegro condemned them to yet another draw.
Leading through Wayne Rooney’s 35th international goal after six minutes, England reached half-time still ahead, having produced possibly their best 45 minutes under manager Roy Hodgson.
But as good as England were before the break, they were bad afterwards.
Twice Joe Hart was forced to make stupendous saves as the visitors found it impossible to relieve the pressure around their goal.
Substitute Dejan Damjanovic eventually found the net, prodding home from close range to negate other heroics from Hart and Joleon Lescott.
It was the least Montenegro deserved, even though captain Steven Gerrard almost won it for England in stoppage time, and keeps last night’s hosts two points clear at the head of Group H.
The worry is that the situation may become worse in June, for when England head to Brazil for a friendly, Montenegro will entertain Ukraine knowing that victory will represent a serious barrier to Hodgson’s hopes of leading his side to Rio by the automatic route.
Initially, Gerrard’s reaction to Branko Brnovic’s inflammatory comments on Monday proved to be accurate.
It transpired England did have Montenegro right where they wanted them.
Rather than the timid attitude expected of a team Brnovic said would be truly scared of the task in front of them, the visitors tore into their opponents from the very start.
In those dazzling early stages, no one shone brighter than Rooney.
Sent off in this stadium 18 months ago for a needless act of petty violence that ruined his chances of making a positive impact at Euro 2012, Rooney was eager to impress.
There was no sense of anxiety about the chip he sent spinning over goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic’s head just three minutes into the contest as England launched one of their many blistering attacks.
Unfortunately for England, the ball came bouncing back off the base of a post.
Undeterred, the visitors continued to attack at speed and when Bozovic got the faintest of touches to Glen Johnson’s piledriver, it provided Gerrard with the opportunity to seek Rooney out with a corner that he directed home with the minimum of disruption.
It made Rooney the first England player to score in four successive qualifying matches since David Beckham in 2003 and briefly silenced a manically noisy home contingent, being egged on by an organiser with a loud-hailer.
Montenegro did improve after that. But so did England.
The excellent James Milner fired wide before Rooney dropped a cross just over the head of Welbeck, who had started the move.
An erratic bounce on a difficult pitch cost Rooney the chance to turn home Milner’s cross from the tightest of angles.
The second goal England deserved might have come if Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson had viewed Stefan Savic’s penalty box tangle with Welbeck as TV viewers did after watching the replays.
Instead of a spot-kick though, Welbeck was booked, as was Johnson earlier in the half.
The former proved to be a pivotal moment.
Montenegro were expected to improve in the second half and Stevan Jovetic gave an early warning when he planted his far-post header into the side-netting after Savic had crossed, and half-time substitute Damjanovic had an effort blocked as he turned quickly onto Mirko Vucinic’s lay-off.
As England creaked and they started to give the ball away with a depressingly familiar regularity, Vucinic was presented with a glorious chance, but he snatched at it and lashed the ball over the crossbar.
The pressure became relentless, with Gerrard among those culpable for getting dragged into an overwhelming desire to attack when the more necessary task was for England to remain solid and protect their lead.
On another break, Jovetic fed Vucinic to his right, but the Montenegro captain’s shot curled just wide.
Jovetic brought a superb save out of Hart before hitting a post from the corner.
England had lost their poise and were doing nothing more than hanging on.
Another brilliant reaction save from Hart kept them in front, but the reprieve lasted only seconds as, in the scramble that followed, Damjanovic found the net.
Belatedly, England rediscovered their earlier zest.
Bozovic was lucky to get away with some sloppy handling in stoppage time as he allowed Gerrard’s free-kick to slither through his fingers, applying just enough force to send it over the bar.
England featured a relatively inexperienced central defensive pairing of Lescott and Chris Smalling, but Gerrard did not feel experience had any bearing on England losing their grip on the match. Gerrard said: “I think there was a lot of experience out there and I think the first half we showed that. We controlled the game.
“The problem is at 1-0 you’re always vulnerable. You’ve got to go on and get the second goal to get complete control and we never did that.
“They took control of the second half up until the last 10 minutes so they deserved the draw.”
Montenegro: Mladen Bozovic, Basa, Savic, Volkov, Djudovic, Zverotic, Vukcevic (Krkotic 62), Vladimir Bozovic (Delibasic 75), Novakovic (Damjanovic 45), Jovetic, Vucinic. Unused substitutes: Blazic, Jovanovic, Kecojevic, Beqiraj, Igumanovic, Kasalica, Poleksic.
England: Hart, Johnson, Smalling, Lescott, Cole, Gerrard, Carrick, Milner,Cleverley (Young 78), Welbeck, Rooney. Unused substitutes: Foster, Walker, Baines, Caulker, Lampard, Parker, Osman, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Defoe, Sturridge, Forster.
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (Sweden).
Results and tables: Page 22.