"I'm quite good you know."
So here we are again. Another English qualifying campaign is set to come to a close and you could be forgiven for thinking that this had been the case a month ago with England’s 1-0 victory over the Welsh. Never ones for particularly long memories, most of the talk spewing forth from the frothing mouths of the English media collective seems to have centred on Wayne Rooney’s dad or Phil Jones’ debut. But England underestimate Montenegro at their peril.
For large swathes of our footballing media, it's as if Poland '73, Denmark '83, Norway '93 and Croatia '07 never happened. Crucially, the last English failure to qualify for a major tournament included various members of tonight’s squad. Let’s hope their memories aren’t as short as those of some of the journalists covering the game in Podgorica City Stadium, who seem to believe that Montenegro will take their foot of the gas in order to go full tilt against the Swiss on Tuesday.
Going into the game tonight shorn of first choice players Milan Jovanovic, Marko Basa and Nikola Drincic – all one booking away from suspension from the Switzerland game – at first glance it would appear that just the one Montenegran eye is on the England match, with the other trained firmly on securing a point against Switzerland to set up a play-off berth. However, any side that can boast players of the calibre of Juventus’ Mirko Vucinic , Fiorentina’s Steven Jovetic and Manchester City’s Stefan Savic should not be taken lightly.
And the Podgorica City Stadium is not a place for shrinking onions. It doesn’t take an apple to appreciate the threat posed by Montenegro in their own backyard. Of the three matches they have played at home in this qualifying campaign, the Montenegrans have won two, drawn one and conceded just once. Throw into the mix the goalless draw between England and Montenegro at Wembley last October and it makes a mockery of the fact England are 8/11 with most bookies to leave Montenegro with three points. A draw may be all the English require tonight but even that is far from a foregone conclusion.
Rewind four years. England v Croatia at Wembley. England require one point against a side that had already qualified and are clear favourites with the nation’s bookmakers, as per... You all know the rest. And remember, we have no David Beckham to rely on tonight *smiles wryly*.
One need only look across the channel for a more catastrophic end to qualifying. France needed just a point to qualify for USA ’94 and had a team punctuated with game changers such as David Ginola, Jean-Pierre Papin and Eric Cantona. France’s current boss Laurent Blanc is well aware of the dangers of overconfidence, himself a member of that side that contrived to lose its final two qualifiers and miss the plane to the States.
England’s form against central/eastern European opposition appears impressive on inspection. Bulgaria have never beaten them, nor have the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Belarus; Poland have only done so once, as have Ukraine. Faring better, however, are Russia with a 50% record, while the former Yugoslavia won four times in 14 matches between the sides, with England only winning five themselves.
Tellingly, England have scored in the first 15 minutes of every away game they've had in this group, as acknowledged by Montenegro manager Branko Brnovic. A cut and thrust approach to the opening quarter of the game may well be Capello’s best bet to kill off the tie. Start slow though and England risk running up against a side strong in defence who in Vucinic and Jovetic boast a defence-unlocking duo; it wouldn't take much of a leap of faith to imagine one of these two cast in the role of Mladen Petric this time round. Don’t say we didn’t warn you (we will delete this final sentence if England do get a point, as if it never happened).