Montenegro: A tough side to beat

England’s 8-0 thrashing of San Marino on Friday may have filled the team with confidence but the toughest task of the group so far is on Tuesday.

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Roy Hodgson’s men travel to top of the group Montenegro; a country that are have won their last four qualifiers without conceding a single goal. The former Yugoslav country have a 2-point lead over England heading into the sixth group match.

The only other fixture that sees the top two nations face each other on Tuesday is France-Spain which kicks off at the same time.

A country that only declared independence in June 2006, playing their first official football match in March the following year, this is only Montenegro’s third qualifying campaign. However, their record has been pretty decent so far.

Montenegro’s first-ever qualifying campaign came ahead of the 2010 World Cup. They finished fifth in a group of 6 that consisted of Italy, Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Georgia. Despite only winning one fixture (2-1 at home to Georgia) they made themselves difficult to beat; drawing 6 of their 10 games. This included three 0-0 draws.

In an attempt to qualify for Poland and Ukraine for last summer’s Euro 2012, Montenegro opened their qualifying campaign with three successive 1-0 victories; over Wales, in Bulgaria and at home to Switzerland. Those results were followed up by an impressive 0-0 draw at Wembley. It was all downhill after that as they would pick up just 2 points from their remaining four fixtures. This left them second in the group, 6 points behind England but good enough for a playoff spot. They lost 3-0 n aggregate to Czech Republic.

Czech Republic won the second leg 1-0 in Montenegro to become only the second nation to win an away game in Montenegro in qualifying. The first was Italy in March 2009.

9 of the 13 points picked up by Montenegro have come against Moldova and San Marino. If we scratch them off, they have picked up 4 points in the two fixtures in a mini table involving the top 4. These were a 2-2 draw at home with Poland in their group opener and a 1-0 win in Ukraine.

By comparison, England only have 2 points from these same two fixtures. Roy Hodgson’s side kicked off their campaign with an unimpressive 1-1 draw at home to Ukraine. They were also held to the same scoreline in a wet, delayed match in Poland. Two emphatic victories over San Marino either side have proven nothing.

A draw wouldn’t be a disaster for England on Tuesday, but the top of the group will be very tight, leaving Roy Hodgson will the likely scenario of needing at least 7 points from the final 3 fixtures. Those come away to Ukraine in September before back-to-back home games against Montenegro and Poland in mid-October to finish the group. A defeat would severely damage England’s chances of winning the group, although second place does equate to a playoff match.

Montenegro play a rigid 4-42 and will be without the experienced Milorad Pekovic after the 35-year old was sent off on Friday.

Manchester City’s Stefan Savic is the only Premier League player in the squad. The young centre-back has played very in his debut season in England. Simon Vukcevic is also another familiar player having been at Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League last season and with the club until January this year.

Fiorentina’s Stevan Jovetic and Juventus’ Mirko Vucinic are the lethal duo up front that will the biggest threat to England’s centre-back pairing. Jovetic has yet to score in qualifying and it is Rayo Vallecano’s Andrija Delibasic who top scores with 4 goals in qualifying. All 4 of those did come against San Marino though. His name should be familiar to you for scoring Montenegro’s stoppage time equaliser against 10-man England in Euro 2012 qualifying back in October 2011.

England have failed to beat Montenegro in two previous matches. There will be a hostile atmosphere no doubt for Tuesday’s game against the group leaders.

Arguably, England are at the lowest point over the past 20 years or so when it comes to choices at centre-back. Rio Ferdinand pulled himself out of the squad, John Terry has retired from international duty. We’re left with Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Steven Caulker and Steven Taylor to choose between in the centre of defence. The first three whom aren’t regulars for their club sides and the latter whom has only recently returned from a long-term injury. That does make me fearful of the Montenegro attack, yes.

England should have the majority of possession in midfield with the home side looking to play a counter-attack game. Steven Gerrard, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard and Tom Cleverley can all play the simple passes and possession game comfortably.

With a difficult defence to break down, there’s a few players in the squad who can shoot from distance, but Ashley Young and Theo Walcott (if fit) or Danny Welbeck running at the defence too should cause problems.

I don’t think England deserve to be the 3/4 odds the bookmakers have listed them at. This is a much trickier game than that. But provided we don’t have another stinker of a game, I cannot see us losing and I’m hopeful that if doesn’t finish 0-0 that England will come back with the 3 points.

A draw would suit Ukraine and Poland who enter Tuesday 6 points behind England with a game in hand. They host Moldova and San Marino respectively, so both sides look likely to gain points on at least one of the top two before the next qualifying games in June.