England are in pole position to secure automatic qualification for next summer's FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil after a 4-1 victory against Montenegro at Wembley.
Dejan Damjanović's 71st-minute goal sparked a nervy finish to a match which England had look assured of winning following Wayne Rooney's sixth of the campaign (48) and a Branko Bošković own goal (62), but debutant Andros Townsend's superb strike and a late Daniel Sturridge penalty dispatched Branko Brnović's spirited, injury-plagued outfit. The result was vital, as second-placed Ukraine prevailed against Poland in Kharkiv, and their shadow lurks ominously, one point behind Roy Hodgson's unbeaten charges as Tuesday's Group H deciders approach.
Eyebrows were raised at Hodgson's decision to start Townsend but the direct and skilful 22-year-old shone on the right. Montenegro's neglect of the opposite flank, however, brought England their best first-half chances as Leighton Baines twice teed up Danny Welbeck to no avail.
Steven Gerrard, equalling Sir Bobby Charlton's England appearances record on his 106th outing, was denied by goalkeeper Vukašin Poleksić as England hunted a half-time lead – Rooney uncharacteristically spurning an excellent opportunity to seize one after Poleksić spilled a fizzing Townsend strike.
Elusive in the first period, goals flowed after the restart. The visiting defence was unlocked almost immediately. They failed to deal with Townsend's cross, and Rooney gleefully stabbed in the rebound after Poleksić parried a Welbeck drive.
Joe Hart was called into action as Montenegro came out of their shell, but amid a slew of chances passed up by England, the Balkan outfit soon conceded another. Bošković diverted past his own goalkeeper in his haste to cut out a dangerous Welbeck delivery.
Stevan Jovetić rattled the crossbar with a warning shot from range, and Montenegro quickly made England pay for their profligacy, Damjanović redirecting Fatos Bećiraj's off-target effort.
Townsend removed the doubt and ensured the spotlight remained trained on him with a stunning goal; cracking a right-footer in off an upright from outside the box after stealing possession. Daniel Sturridge converted an added-time penalty to salt Montenegrin wounds.