Roy Hodgson’s England side take the field in Podgorica on Tuesday evening to take on current Group H leaders, Montenegro.
The clash between the two nations will go a long way to determine who progresses automatically to next year’s finals in Brazil. Both countries remain unbeaten in their qualifying campaign so far with the former Yugoslav republic holding a two point lead over the Three Lions.
The tiny Balkan nation have impressed to date in their fixtures and came good with a late winner in Friday’s trip to Moldova to maintain top spot in the group. England come into this game on the back of an eight goal mauling of perpetual whipping boys, San Marino-the first time they’ve bagged as many goals in one game since 1987.
Hodgson took the opportunity to rest some of his key personnel for the game on Friday evening in preparation for this crucial fixture. The players who came in such as Leighton Baines and Kyle Walker came in and gave impressive performances but it is expected that the England boss will ring the changes to ensure his side don’t slip up in this tricky game.
In the build-up, Montenegro coach, Brank Brnovic, has tried his best to engage his counterpart in mind games by suggesting England are scared of his side and are unable to play anything other than an outdated long-ball game. Veteran coach Hodgson laughed off such suggestions, safe in the knowledge he has seen these type of tactics from his opposing number on far too many occasions in his long and distinguished career to be anything other than slightly amused by Brnovic’s antics.
While the home side are likely to prepare a dubious pitch (despite England already diffusing this as an excuse for any slip-up) and whip up the local crowd into a tempestuous frenzy, the English players have seen this sort of thing too many times to be overawed.
When looking through the likely line-ups for the game, the Three Lions can rely on the class and experience of the likes of skipper Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney, all veterans on the world stage. Hodgson’s attempt to re-introduce another old warrior, Rio Ferdinand, into the picture for this match, backfired when the Manchester United snubbed the invitation claiming that it would upset his training routine when it is more likely an act of revenge for his omission from Euro 2012 when John Terry was preferred.
The Montengrans best chance of success is their Serie A based strike force of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic. The two forwards will attempt to exploit the makeshift central defensive partnership of Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, both of whom have struggled to hold down a regular place in their club sides this season either through form or injury.
On the flip side, England’s front line will look to target Stefan Savic in the heart of the Montengro defence as their weak link. The hapless former Manchester City defender was a constant source of disappointment during his brief stay in the Premier League and was shipped off to Fiorentina during the summer.
Although England can expect a hot reception both on the pitch and from the stands, they should have far too much experience and know-how and possess far too many weapons to be rolled over by this plucky but limited Montenegro team. They will be made to fight hard, but expect Roy Hodgson’s men to be topping Group H at the end of the night.
Prediction: Montenegro 1-3 England