Saturday's victory over Montenegro offers hope for Futsal future.
England v Montenegro
International Futsal Matches
20-21 May 2011
The Point 4, Hereford
20 May 2011: England 2-4 Montenegro
21 May 2011: England 2-1 MontenegroBy Simon Walker in Hereford.
The development of English Futsal took a large stride forward in Hereford with an important and convincing victory by the England Futsal team against a strong Montenegro squad.
England Head Coach Pete Sturgess and his team beat the odds by defeating a nation 30 places higher in the FIFA World Rankings. This should come as no surprise though, as the England squad over the last 18 months have been building momentum and have taken other notable scalps such as Cyprus and particularly Libya, who in the Futsal world are ranked significantly higher than this developing England team.
Under Sturgess’ patient and careful nurturing, the England squad are beginning to look a formidable proposition for opponents. Gone are the days of the England Futsal team being hammered by lesser known nations; the squad in these two matches and in recent times are now beginning to ask challenging questions of more experienced and senior Futsal countries. England are still some way from rivalling nations of the calibre of Brazil and Spain, but England can take encouragement from two outstanding performances against Montenegro and the embryonic signs that Sturgess and this young England team have a promising future.
Montenegro, a powerful experienced outfit on paper, should have walked these two friendly Futsal internationals, and within the first 20 seconds of the first game it looked like it was going to be an uphill battle for England as Montenegro grabbed the lead with an early goal. The England players, along with the 360 English supporters who filled the impressive Point 4 arena in Hereford, were left stunned after Illija Mugosa capitalised on some sloppy English play to slide the ball into the bottom corner past the stranded English goalkeeper, Curtis Holmes.
This was not the start that the England team had planned and it took several minutes for Sturgess’ men to settle into any kind of rhythm. Holmes had to make several decent saves in this early period to stop any further damage. Gradually, the more experienced heads of Rob Ursell, Ben Mortlock and Nick Colley helped England to gain a foothold in the game. It was quickly evident that it would be a battle between two different Futsal styles: the physically big and strong Montenegrins playing a powerful, direct and occasionally confrontational approach compared to the smaller, more agile and technical style of the English. The Montenegrins were happy to concede possession to England, preferring to hit on the counter-attack. As England began to settle into the game they began to pass the ball quickly and slickly, exposing gaps in the Montenegrin defence and a shot from distance from Mortlock caught Despotovic, the Montenegrin goalkeeper, unaware to bring England back into contention at 1-1.
England were in the ascendency, dominating possession and creating half-chances. But yet another English mistake surprisingly gifted Montenegro with a second goal against the run-of play. The normally infallible and consistent England captain, Luke Ballinger, was having a rare off-day and made a dangerous and loose pass across the face of his goal that the Montenegrin captain Zekovic gleefully intercepted before slotting past the advancing Holmes. Ballinger’s confidence was rocked, and Sturgess took a brave move to experiment with the untried and untested Will Rooke and Sam Murphy – both making their international debuts.
These two young players settled into the rigours of international Futsal incredibly quickly and combined with the electric skills of Ursell, slowly began to reassert English control over the game and at the start of the second half a sharp passing move was expertly finished by Ollie O’Neil who brought the scores level at 2-2.
England continued to press the Montenegrins who were lucky not to concede further goals. England played controlled Futsal and did everything but score. But Montenegro demonstrated why they are a team to be reckoned with in the Futsal world, with a lightening counter-attack that started on their own goal-line and ended with a polished finish by Zekovic only seconds later. England were naïve in defence and should have shut this attack down far quicker and England were still recoiling from this disappointment when Montenegro effectively finished the game with Barovic scoring from a well-worked corner which caught Sturgess’ team napping. The game finished 4-2 and England felt bitterly disappointed. Although England dominated the game and created the best chances, they could only rue the four mistakes that had gifted the Montenegrins the win.
The Montenegrins were faced with a far different proposition the following day, as a far more committed and resolute England team started the match. Rather than dwelling on the disappointment of the previous night, the English were determined to give another packed Hereford crowd something to cheer. Colley, becoming England’s most capped Futsal player with 41 caps, along with Ursell and a rejuvenated Ballinger helped to set the tone for what was to follow. The England players recognised the need to withstand the physicality of the Montenegro team and to draw on the combative English nature to add to the team’s slick passing. As the English Lions snapped into the tackles and showed an incredible desire, the Montenegrins initially struggled to keep up with the intensity.
Colley with a raking pass to Ballinger, clever interplay between the England captain and Ursell, allowed the latter to score a glorious goal within three minutes, giving England the rewards to the positive start they had made. But moments later, England were punished for yet another lapse in concentration with the excellent Zekovic bringing the scores level. But this would be the last time England would switch-off in this game.
England pushed and probed for the remainder of the first half with Despotovic making save after save in the Montenegrin goal. And in order to try and match England’s intensity, the Montenegrins were forced to commit a number of fouls, and a cynical challenge by Mugosa three minutes before half time saw him pick up his second yellow card and was dismissed from the pitch.
This also saw the Montenegro foul count hit five, so they would have to play two minutes with one man down and if they conceded a further foul it would result in an English penalty. England were in an outstanding position to grab a second goal to take into half-time, but a somewhat lacklustre and unfocused two minutes from England wasted this opportunity.
The second half saw Montenegro creep back into the game with an improved collective performance, and they began to ask challenging questions of the English defence, with Neil Morgan and Jason Kilbride combining with Colley to resist these advances. James Dalton, the English goalkeeper, began to shine with some incredible one-on-one saves. Dalton was in phenomenal form, and during this second half the Hereford crowd became convinced that nothing was going to beat England’s brave goalkeeper.
Whilst Dalton was rescuing England at one end, with the attacking talents in the English squad, the game opened into an exhilarating end-to-end affair. The Montenegrins struggled to cope particularly with the clever play of Ursell, Murphy, Rooke and Osborn. Young Grant Osborn had his best game in an England shirt; his terrier-like performance continually upsetting the flow of the Montenegrin play and his agility and runs proving awkward.
The decisive moment of the game came when, not for the first time, Ursell beat two defenders to fire across the penalty area, and Osborn had made a clever run to the front post ahead of his defender to poke the ball into the back of the net. The crowd went into rapture, and they continued to provide outstanding support to help England cross the finishing line and secure an important 2-1 victory.
In these two matches, England played outstandingly well. The passing and movement along with composure and confidence at key points was an improvement on previous performances. This young squad still has many areas to develop, but wins like this will only assist their development and particularly with their preparation for the World Cup Qualifiers in the autumn. It will be important for the squad to build on this for the next England friendly matches against Greece in Sheffield on the 24 and 25 June.