England facing up to hostile Macedonia crowds
England will face hostile crowds, an ambitious opponent and some bad memories for Wayne Rooney in a World Cup qualifier at Montenegro on Wednesday (NZ time).
The visitors cannot afford to lose to the Group H leaders. If Montenegro wins, the team would move five points ahead of England, jeopardizing its 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, said it will be a big match in front of the partisan crowd in Podgorica.
"We are aware of the importance of the game," he said as his team arrived in the Montenegrin capital during a thunderstorm. "It's not going to be easy, but we are confident that the team will do very well."
Montenegro will go into the game spurred by an eight-match unbeaten run, including a 1-0 victory in Moldova last week to remain two points clear of England. Ukraine and Poland are both eight points behind Montenegro, and six back from 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 forward Stevan Jovetic will spearhead Montenegro's attack.
"The most important thing is that we come out onto the field and leave every drop of our sweat and blood, if necessary."
Montenegro, the tiny mountainous country of just 625,000 people, has surprisingly established itself as a strong football nation after splitting from 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.
Rooney was sent off for kicking a defender with 17 minutes remaining, and Montenegro later equalized. England still qualified for Euro 2012, while Montenegro lost in the playoffs against the Czech Republic.
"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. 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."
The memory of Rooney's red card, which meant he was suspended for two games at Euro 2012, will serve as a warning against any hasty reactions.
"Wayne is older now," England defender Joleon Lescott said. "He is more experienced and mature."
Vucinic said Montenegro players will not deliberately try to provoke the Manchester United striker.
"I would like to see him get a red card again, because it would be easier for us to play," Vucinic said. "But we definitely will not play to make him angry or provoked."
Lescott, although playing only rarely for Manchester City this season, was included in Hodgson's side because of injuries to defenders Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill. Rio Ferdinand is out for fitness reasons.
"We know it's going to be a big game," Gerrard said. "If we play to our level, then we can get the three points."
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.
Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic rejected claims, which he said are coming from the English camp, that the rain-drenched slippery pitch at the Podgorica Stadium will suit the style of play of the hosts.
"As far as I know, the English have always favored long passes and I can't see why they are complaining about this," Brnovic said. "It supports the fact they are more scared of this game than we are."
Montenegro will be without three first-choice injured midfielders: Nikola Drincic, Milorad Pekovic and Branko Boskovic. Defender Savo Pavicevic is suspended after being sent off in Moldova.