Montenegro, one of the states formed by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, lie 10 places below England in the world rankings and do not have any ‘world stars’ in their ranks. Yet this tiny nation tops World Cup qualifying Group H, has not lost in three meetings with England – all drawn – since its formation, and its team contains more itches than a tramp’s overcoat. They call themselves the Brave Falcons – and brave is what England must be at Wembley if we are to avoid the humiliation of failing to qualify for next year’s finals in Brazil.
However, I don’t advocate that manager Roy Hodgson throws caution to the wind by tampering too much with his midfield. I have heard suggestions that he is considering dropping 35-year-old Frank Lampard for Michael Carrick or axing Lampard and Danny Welbeck to accommodate James Milner and Tottenham’s promising youngster Andros Townsend. Well, I wouldn’t recommend either of those options. In saying we must be brave, I am suggesting we must be totally positive, but not risky. I believe Hodgson should stick with the vastly-experienced Lampard and Steven Gerrard, supported by Jack Wilshere, and worry about replacing these old soldiers when – and if – we get the job of qualifying done. Make no mistake, this is a tricky-looking fixture and I don’t think it is one to entrust to relatively inexperienced players like Townsend.
Montenegro may not have any superstar names amongs their ranks, but they do have very good players, men whose qualities adorn top European teams like Juventus, Fiorentina and Lille. Striker Vukevic, for example, for some mysterious reason was not a success at Blackburn Rovers, yet he now leads the line in Serie A for Juve, while centre-back Savic is a mainstay at Fiorentina after being jettisoned by Manchester City. These guys are no mugs and players like Lampard and Gerrard must get to grips with them quickly and ensure that England impose themselves in front of an expectant Wembley crowd. Goals haven’t been coming easily for England and we must hope that the returning Wayne Rooney, who will drop off the in-form Liverpool striker Daniel Sturridge, can produce the type of dynamic performance of which he is capable. One of the reasons Sturridge left Chelsea was that he did not want to be used as a wide striker, yet he does some of his best work running in from wide areas, just as the athletic Welbeck does. These guys must be urged to tear at the Montenegro defence at every opportunity.
The front runners will be ably supported by Everton’s in-form left-back Leighton Baines whose selection is automatic given the injury sustained by Ashley Cole. The loss of Cole may prove a gain for England for Baines is the more creative of the two, a player who can supply crosses for the likes of Sturridge, Rooney and Welbeck to attack. It is vital that England dominate possession and Baines can play a big part there. Centre-halves Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka pick themselves, but I would restore Glen Johnson to the right-back slot if he is fit. The Liverpool player is far and away our best in that position, though Kyle Walker will do a good enough job if he plays. And, despite all the flak he has taken this season in the Premier League, Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart remains a shoe-in.
This really is what they call a must-win game. The situation is clear: Beat Montenegro and then Poland on Tuesday, also at Wembley, and we will be heading for Brazil. Failure to do so is too awful to contemplate.