Failure to reach Euro 2012 behind them
26 March ~ Montenegro will enter into this evening's tie with England with a sense of deja-vu. Not only is it just 18 months since these two sides last met in Podgorica, but the home side are once again in with a realistic shout of attending their first international finals. In 2011 they held England 2-2 in a game best remembered here for Wayne Rooney's act of petulance, before losing to the Czech Republic in the play-offs for Euro 2012. That meek defeat – the tie finished 3-0 on aggregate – was viewed as a grave disappointment following an impressive group campaign
This time they find themselves in the ascendancy, topping Group H by two points from tonight's opponents. With the other realistic qualification candidates, Poland and Ukraine, seemingly cancelling each other out, the feeling among Montenegrins is that this is a straight play-off between the group's top two for direct qualification.
After a shaky start, Branko Brnovic now looks stable in his position as coach. Stepping into the breach following the surprising sacking of Croatian Zlatko Kranjcar midway through Euro 2012 qualification, early performances were disappointing. However, his team have started this campaign strongly, winning five of their opening six matches (albeit with two of those victories coming against San Marino).
Their latest win came on Friday evening; a tight 1-0 success in Chisinau against Moldova. Their principal talent, Mirko Vucinic, punctuated a poor game with a composed finish, despite Montenegro having been a man light for the final half-hour. "Such a victory, hellishly difficult and with one less player, shows the character of the team," said Montenegrin tabloid Vijesti.
The tight Pod Goricom stadium will again be the venue for the game and comments from the England camp concerning the "cauldron" atmosphere and Montenegrins "trying to intimidate the referee into making rash decisions" have been interpreted as English anxieties by the locals. Brnovic has expended much effort in recent days placing pressure on the visitors. "We are the leaders and the English are the ones who should open up," he claimed. "I'm certain that we will not go offensively and open. What we had in Moldova, the English will have in Podgorica."
Despite his side expecting to line up more conservatively than normal, the coach has warned England that "a Ferrari comes blazing out of that bus". Roy Hodgson will no doubt be hoping that his players' familiarity with fast sports cars stands them in good stead for this evening's test. Marcus Haydon