Podgorica: England will face hostile crowds, an ambitious opponent and some bad memories for Wayne Rooney when the team plays Montenegro on Tuesday in a World Cup qualifier. England cannot afford to lose to the Group H leaders. If Montenegro win, they would move five points ahead of England, jeopardising their direct qualification for the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
England coach Roy Hodgson, who is poised to make several changes to the team that routed San Marino 8-0 on Friday, said it will be a big match in front of the partisan crowd in Podgorica. "It will be tough, but we must do our best to get a win," he said.
Montenegro will go into the game spurred by an eight-match unbeaten streak, including a 1-0 victory in Moldova on Friday to remain two points clear of England with 13 points. Ukraine and Poland are both eight points behind Montenegro and six points behind England.
Montenegro's main striker, Mirko Vucinic, said his team will "fight like lions" against England. "We can play against anyone, even against England," said Vucinic, the leading scorer for Juventus who together with Fiorentina's Stevan Jovetic spearheads Montenegro's attacks. "The most important thing is that we come out onto the field and leave every drop of our sweat and blood, if necessary," he said.
Montenegro, the tiny mountainous country of just 625,000 people, has surprisingly established itself as a strong football nation after splitting from much larger Serbia in 2006. Its first official international competition as an independent nation was in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
England were held to a 2-2 draw in a Euro 2012 qualifier in October 2011 in Podgorica when Rooney was sent off, and English players know the atmosphere in Montenegro will be hostile, like it always is in the Balkans. "These are the type of atmospheres where they try to intimidate us," said England captain Steven Gerrard, who sat out the match against San Marino and is likely to start on Tuesday.
"Any time you are away from home against these countries, when England are in town, the supporters are up for it," he said. "They are desperate to beat us and everything is against us, but I think we've got the players in the squad to go and handle the situation and get the three points."
Among those who will need to control temper is Rooney, who was sent off in 2011 for kicking a Montenegrin defender with 17 minutes remaining, leading to an equaliser. Despite the draw, England qualified for Euro 2012, while Montenegro lost in the playoffs against the Czech Republic.
But, the memory of Rooney's red card, which meant he was suspended for two games at Euro 2012, will serve as a warning against hasty reactions. "Wayne is older now," England defender Joleon Lescott said. "He is more experienced and mature."
Lescott, although rarely playing for Manchester City this season, is included in Hodgson's side because of injuries to defenders Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill. Rio Ferdinand is out for fitness reasons. "It is important we keep 11 men on the pitch because it is going to be a very difficult game," Gerrard said.
Besides Gerrard, also likely to return to the English team are Glen Johnson, Ashley Cole, Michael Carrick, Danny Welbeck and James Milner, who were all absent against San Marino. A 0-0 draw against England at Wembley in October 2010 and the 2-2 draw a year later in Podgorica were raucously celebrated by the boisterous Montenegrin crowds, and their ambitions have grown ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
"We won an important victory against Moldova that will give us wings in the match against England," Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic said. "It won't be easy, but I believe that we can at least get a draw."
Montenegro will miss three starting midfielders - Nikola Drincic, Milorad Pekovic and Branko Boskovic - through injuries and defender Savo Pavicevic, who was red-carded in Moldova.