England enter their penultimate World Cup qualifier with little margin for error, if they are to avoid missing out on the game’s showpiece event for the first time in 20 years. For their opponents Montenegro, a country of just over 600,000 people, a positive result could set them up with the chance to make it to the World Cup for the first time in their short history and become the smallest nation ever to do so. With so much on the line, it promises to be a tightly contested, nervy affair.
Here are five players whose performances could be crucial to the outcome:
Jack Wilshere (England)
The 21-year-old has endured a very much stop-start beginning to his England career. Having made his debut over three years ago, injuries have restricted him to just nine appearances since and thus far there have only been glimpses in an England shirt of the unique ability he possesses within his country’s current selection of players. Wilshere is due a performance to really stamp his mark on the international arena.
In a team where the ball is often treated akin to a grenade rather than something to treasure, the Arsenal midfielder is able to take and hold possession under the most extreme pressure. Crucially, he can also move forward with the ball at his feet, taking out opposition players and breaking out of England’s often regimented lines of play. While he has not enjoyed the best form of late and has been embroiled in two separate controversies in the past week, this would be the perfect time for him to let his football do the talking.
Stevan Jovetic (Montenegro)
Viewed as one of Europe’s best young talents for several seasons, Jovetic finally made his big move this summer in joining Manchester City for £22 million. His start to life in England has been slow, though, having just made one Premier League start to date and that in a disappointing goalless draw with Stoke City. With some of those in England -- unfamiliar with the technical ability he regularly showcased at Fiorentina -- questioning his purchase, this match represents a perfect opportunity for the 23-year-old to make a dramatic statement of his quality. And with fellow star forward Mirko Vucinic of Juventus out injured, Jovetic will be even more crucial to his country’s hopes.
Daniel Sturridge (England)
It can be pretty painful for England fans to look back to the late 1990s and compare the selection of forwards then available compared to the current day. For the 1998 World Cup, the likes of Andy Cole, Ian Wright, Dion Dublin and Chris Sutton could all be left out. Now any Englishman whose Premier League goal tally breaks double figures is virtually guaranteed a spot in the squad. Since the decline of Michael Owen, no striker has earned the right to stake a claim for a regular place alongside Wayne Rooney.
But the performances that Sturridge has put in for Liverpool at the start of the season warrants him being given an opportunity to do just that. He is set to be handed his first competitive start for England on Friday and will allow Rooney to play in his more natural position in behind a striker. If he can reproduce his club form, the former Chelsea man could fire England to a place in Brazil and go a long way to ensuring that he plays a prominent part when the team gets there.
Vukasin Poleksic (Montenegro)
With first-choice goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic injured, there looks set to be a dramatic return to the spotlight for Poleksic. The Debrecen stopper was given a two-year-ban in 2010 for failing to report an attempt to fix a Champions League qualifier against Fiorentina (there was no evidence that he obliged the request). Since his ban ended, Poleksic has hardly played for either club or country, but claims to be ready to be thrown into the deep end in what he believes is the most important match ever for both he and his country.
Leighton Baines (England)
Injuries have also impacted England’s preparations with Ashley Cole among the players unavailable. As good a left-back as the Chelsea man is, however, his absence could turn into a positive for Roy Hodgson. Cole’s defensive skills are unquestioned, but his relative lack of quality going forward is often overlooked when English pundits habitually describe him as the world’s best in his position. In a game that England realistically need to win, the ability of Baines to deliver balls into the box as well as his threat from set-pieces will be a welcome added dimension. And with Danny Welbeck likely to play ahead of Baines and regularly move inside, the option Baines provides getting forward on the outside could be a difference-maker.
Match details: The 2014 World Cup qualifier will kick-off from Wembley Stadium at 3 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by FOX Sports 1.
Betting Odds: England are 4/11 favorites to get the win with Bet 365. A draw is priced at 4/1, with a Montenegro victory available at 10/1.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.