England host Montenegro at Wembley on Friday (20:00 BST, live on ITV 1) knowing that victory will guarantee them a playoff to qualify for next year’s World Cup regardless of results in the final round of fixtures next Tuesday.
England currently top qualifying group H with 16 points from four wins and four draws. They are one point ahead of Ukraine in second and Montenegro in third, with next Tuesday’s opponents Poland maintaining a watching brief in fourth, three points behind.
The top team in the group will qualify automatically, while the second placed team will compete in a two-legged playoff against a team that finishes second in one of the other qualifying groups for a place at Brazil 2014.
There are not a set of results that would guarantee England an automatic qualifying berth on Friday, but an England victory combined with a win for Poland away to Ukraine would leave them just needing to avoid a spectacular thrashing against Poland next Tuesday to qualify.
England coach Roy Hodgson will not have allowed his mind to wander to the other eventualities that would arise if England fail to beat Montenegro on Friday, with the task in hand simply to secure two home victories for World Cup qualification. With both Montenegro and Ukraine enjoying easy final day fixtures, six points is likely to be required.
Hodgson’s team drew criticism for their performance in their last qualifier, a 0-0 draw away to Ukraine. They did well in sitting back and soaking up the home side’s pressure, but failed to break with any clarity or consistency, regularly surrendering possession back to their hosts. A different approach will be required on Friday, with the onus on England to attack.
England were without third forwards for the Ukraine match due to various issues and Hodgson will be glad to welcome Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney, and in particular, Daniel Sturridge back into the fray. Sturridge has scored six goals in seven league appearances for Liverpool so far this season and if he can strike up a rapport with Rooney, could be decisive.
Hodgson is without full-backs Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole through injury, but will have faith in their replacements, Kyle Walker and Leighton Baines, both of whom are experienced performers for good Premier League clubs and are into double figures in previous England caps.
Montenegro have been less lucky and have some key injury absences for Friday’s match, with Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic (the nascent country’s all-time top scorer), goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic (who had started all eight of their previous qualifiers) and Lille defender Marko Basa all missing out.
There are also doubts over the fitness of Stevan Jovetic, who has suffered a series of niggling injuries since joining Manchester City in the summer. He and Vucinic usually form a potent, quick and skilful forward pairing and presuming Jovetic starts, it will be interesting to see how he dovetails with the more physically imposing Dragan Damjanovic.
Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic has been in charge since September 2011. He oversaw the latter stages of the country’s second place finish in their Euro 2012 qualification group and the subsequent playoff defeat to the Czech Republic. He has been bullish about his side’s chances on Friday, stating that they are best suited to playing away from home.
The 15 points Montenegro have accumulated to date have come from wins home and away to San Marino, away to Moldova and most impressively, away to Ukraine, and two draws against Poland. Their 4-0 home defeat to Ukraine in June is the only blot on an otherwise admirable campaign, one that could yet yield a first qualification for a major tournament.
England v Montenegro Betting Tips Verdict
These two sides have met on three previous occasions over the last three years, having also been drawn together in qualifying for Euro 2012. All three of the encounters have ended in draws, including the reverse fixture in March, in which Damjanovic came off the bench to equalise Rooney’s early strike in a 1-1 draw.
Draws have also been the order of the day for England against Group H’s stronger teams. Their four victories to date came against the group’s bottom two sides (Moldova and San Marino) while they have drawn all four of their matches against their direct rivals for qualification.
The absence of Vucinic means Montenegro will not carry the same pacey threat on the break that has been the foundation of much of their success in the qualifying campaign to date. The away side are also missing two key players in defence and with England able to call on Rooney and Sturridge, we believe Hodgson’s men will take the three points on Friday.
- Back England -1.5 goals on the Asian Handicap @ 68/67 with BetVictor.
- Rooney has scored seven times in his last eight appearances for the national team and is in good form at club level, with five goals in his last six appearances. He also scored England’s goal in the reverse fixture between these sides in March. Back Wayne Rooney to score at anytime @ best odds of 11/10 with Ladbrokes.