Injuries and poor form hurting Wembley visitors
11 October ~ There's a contrast in the rhetoric emanating from the Montenegro camp ahead of this evening's qualifier at Wembley. In March when these two teams met in Podgorica, their coach, Branko Brnovic, spent much of the build-up declaring that England were scared of the atmosphere in the Montenegrin capital and deriding their style of play and attitude. Ahead of tonight's game Brnovic has taken a more deferential tone, describing this as a "great England side" and the appearance at Wembley as "something that every player dreams about".
Knowing the nature of the Montenegro coach, this may well be him exploring another chapter of his sports psychology book, but there is a feeling that this evening's visitors to Wembley are uneasy about their prospects of claiming a place at a first major tournament.
After their 1-1 draw with England last spring, it looked all set that it would be these two teams that would scrap it out for the one available automatic qualification spot. But a 4-0 defeat at home to Ukraine in June inflicted their first defeat in more than 18 months and roused a vulnerability not seen since they allowed qualification for Euro 2012 to slip through their fingers, losing four of their last five qualification games (including two play-off defeats against the Czech Republic). It also turned Group H into a three-horse race, presenting the possibility that Montenegro could even miss out on a play-off spot.
"The defeat against Ukraine was a big step backwards," admits Dejan Savicevic, the former AC Milan forward who now heads up the Football Association of Montenegro. "It will probably cost us in the standings. However, the purpose from the start of qualifying was to still be in the game until the end, until October of this year."
Last time out, Brnovic's team were fortunate to leave Poland with a point after a fine display from their goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic. The scale of their task over the coming five days has been elevated by his absence, as well as other casualties including forward Mirko Vucinic and central defender Marko Basa. "A few days ago, everything was fine," claims defender Savo Pavicevic. "It was nice to see all the players together on the list, but then they started to break: Mirko [Vucinic], Stevan [Jovetic], [Marko] Basa, [Mladen] Bozovic."
The absence Vucinic, Montenegro's talisman, has attracted the most attention. The Juventus forward is the most gifted player at the coach's disposal but also possesses vital big match experience. He is the figure that gives the team its true potency and the fear is that despite their remarkable achievements up to this point (Montenegro has a population roughly equivalent to that of Bristol), his injury couldn't have come at a worse time. That said, the last time Montenegro visited Wembley, almost three years ago to the day, they left London with a point despite being without Vucinic and has strike partner Jovetic.
"If someone offered point in this situation, I would accept it," concedes Pavicevic. "It is certain that they are well aware of the problems in our team. But we travel there to do our best." Marcus Haydon