7 October ~ England's Euro 2012 qualifier in Montenegro tonight is unsurprisingly billed as "the match of the decade" by the local daily Pobjeda (Victory). While the game may well be "the biggest in the short history of the Montenegrin football representation" it is also acknowledged that the fixture is potentially not the most important of the forthcoming double-header. Defeat in Wales in the last round of matches – which resulted in the dismissal of remarkably successful coach Zlatko Kranjčar – means that Montenegro's game with Switzerland next week will probably decide which of these nations secures a play-off berth.
Montenegro's new coach Branko Brnović explains that "the match with Switzerland is key, but this does not mean that we won't also give our maximum against England". Noting that consecutive victories would result in his team winning the group, Brnović explained to Sportski žurnal that although England represent extremely tough opposition, "miracles are possible if you believe in them". Who could deny this after Montenegro's spirited performance earned them a draw in the reciprocal fixture at Wembley? On that occasion left-back Milan Jovanović (not to be confused with his Serbian namesake) hit the crossbar and, while he shares the opinion that the Swiss match is crucial, he is keen to stress that "nobody thinks we should conserve ourselves against England". Jovanović, however, is one of three experienced players on yellow cards omitted for the England game.
Of course, for Montenegro to be in this position in the first place is a major upset for many. The nation only gained independence five years ago, and when they emerged from pot five to complete Group G few honestly expected them to challenge. However, while this former Yugoslav republic has a relatively weak domestic league, the national team contains players who play throughout the world. The preliminary 27-man squad included just four players who currently compete in the Montenegrin First League, while the remainder are spread across 14 different countries. The nation's status as footballing minnows is brought into question by the presence of several genuinely quality footballers, with Juventus' Marko Vučinić, Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetić and Manchester City's Stefan Savić – who opened his account against Blackburn last weekend – arguably the pick of the bunch.
In contrast to Montenegro's cosmopolitan team, the capital Podgorica has the feel of a small provincial city, with single-storey houses and bars dotted across the centre. Compared with other away fixtures in the Balkans this trip should be a relatively relaxed affair for England supporters. Nevertheless, inside the stadium the atmosphere will be white hot. At the earlier group match against Wales the visitors were greeted by a cauldron of noise, culminating in the simple but effective repetition of "Bellamy, Bellamy, Bellamy, Fuck you!"
I am sure that the volume will be turned up even higher for the visit of Fabio Capello's side and I would like to issue a word of warning to flag bearing England supporters – following Wales' visit, Wrexham fans presumably returned home empty handed after their flag was taken, mockingly inverted and then hung from the upper tier as a trophy by the resident ultras. The theft of opposition banners is a common practice used by supporters across the Balkans in order to demonstrate supremacy.But while the locals are experts at orchestrating a hostile atmosphere, their players are rather good at football too, as Wales, Bulgaria and Switzerland have each discovered to their cost. Richard Mills