Despite only cutting their teeth six years ago following independence, Montenegro go into Tuesday’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier with England in the novel position of having played them twice before – with notable performances no less.
Two well-fought draws against the Three Lions in UEFA EURO 2012 qualification saw the Balkan side receive rave reviews, but midfielder Simon Vukcevic is making no assumptions about tomorrow’s match in Podgorica. “We gained some confidence from those games and more recognition in world football, but this will be a completely different game,” he told FIFA.com.
“We have to play the best we can and we will see how things work out later. A point against England, or even a win would be huge for us, but neither guarantees that we will qualify for the World Cup.”
That is a lesson learned from their bid to reach last year’s continental finals – which would have been their first as a stand-alone international side – where dropped points elsewhere ultimately led to a play-off defeat at the hands of Czech Republic.
However, Vukcevic is confident that this time the nation of just 625,266 people – less than eight per cent of the population of London – can reach Brazil 2014, even if it involves another second-placed finish.
“We have to believe [we can qualify] and give all that we have in every single game. We are now on top of our group, we do not want to waste what we have done so far in upcoming games. If we miss out on first place, we would still have the chance to go to Brazil through the play-offs.“
Despite holding superiority in Group H when England arrive at the Podgorica City Stadium, Vukcevic still believes the hosts will be ranked as underdogs in many people's eyes. Even so, he intends to enjoy the occasion of outranking their more aged opponents, whose football association was formed 144 years prior to Montenegro's.
“It will be special because we are playing for the top place in the group. Montenegro cannot compare with England in many ways – they are a world class team, made from top players who play in Premier League, with great history and tradition. Not many teams get the opportunity to stay in front of them.”
It took a late Mirko Vucinic winner to keep a ten-man Montenegro on top of the group against a plucky Moldova on Friday, volleying home after a Marko Basa nod-down in the 78th minute, maintaining their two point cushion over England. Vukcevic rates Dejan Savicevic – who helped Yugoslavia to the quarter-finals of Italy 1990 – as Montenegro's greatest ever footballing product, but is off the belief that Juventus striker Vucinic is someone who could emulate him.
“We have some players which have the potential and talent to be like [Savicevic]. I am speaking about Mirko Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, but also Marko Basa, who is a world class defender,” the Karpaty Lviv player said. “[Vucinic and Jovetic] will be very important for us, but many times in the past we have played without both of them and achieved some important results. But, in the end, I am glad that we have them with us for this match.”
This is only Montenegro’s second tilt at FIFA World Cup qualification, finishing fifth in their group when targeting a trip to South Africa 2010, but overall progression has been rapid. They peaked as high as 16th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in April 2011, just four years after being ranked dead last, and currently sit 28th – seven place ahead of Vukcevic’s former team-mates in the Serbia side.
Having now amassed 41 caps since appearing in Montenegro’s first-ever game – a 2-1 win over Hungary in March 2007, Vukcevic expressed pride at his contribution to side and believes that consistency of personnel holds the key to their leap up the global standings. “I am really happy that I have been a member of this team since the beginning. It is a great pleasure to play for your country.
“The squad has grown a lot since then. We have played together for a long time and we have improved in all areas. To be honest, I do not see this team as any different to the one which played in our first qualifying campaign. We have added couple of players, but the core of the team stayed the same and I think that is our strongest weapon. We have great team spirit.”