After a quiet night in San Marino enlivened only by his fifth goal in four England games this season, Wayne Rooney will become the centre of attention again as he takes the field on Tuesday for a serious football match against Montenegro.
It would have been irritating for any forward to have left the Serravalle pitch without adding to his list of international goals and Rooney wore a satisfied smile after curling home a clever free-kick for his 34th. In the very different atmosphere of Podgorica, however, the old pressures, mainly of his own making, will crowd in once more.
It was there, of course, in the teams' last meeting two years ago, that Rooney joined David Beckham as the only player to be sent off twice playing for England. His offence, rightly condemned all round, was to kick out at the Montenegrin midfielder Miodrag Dzudovic in one of those not untypical moments when his game goes awry and a mist as red as a Manchester United shirt descends.
Dzudovic, an experienced campaigner who is now the second oldest player in the squad, made the most of it and stayed down, but felt sufficiently sympathetic afterwards to write a letter on Rooney's behalf to Uefa, which helped reduce the inevitable suspension at the start of the European Championship finals from three games to two. In an interview with the Independent on Sunday yesterday, Dzudovic, who currently plays for the Russian second division club Spartak Nalchik, revealed how that came about.
Speaking through an interpreter, he said: "That was the initiative of the Russian daily sport newspaper SportExpress. Their editor is a huge Manchester United fan and he asked me to support the campaign. I did it during a short stay in Russia and in the end it did help. I am happy, because Rooney is a great player and the Euros would lose a lot with his absence."
As it turned out, the competition did not gain much from the United man's presence. Banned from the first two matches, he scored an easy header when returning against Ukraine but looked off the pace, and was as unsuccessful as everyone else when England were outplayed and beaten on penalties by Italy in the quarter-final.
Dzudovic is looking forward to meeting England and Rooney again, and remains charitable about both. "I was not surprised," he said about the wild kick at his calf, "because that is a moment of weakness that is common on the football pitch. It can happen to everybody on a bad day. I am sure Rooney was not doing that because he wanted to hurt me."
Rooney has collected six yellow cards for United this season, two in successive high-profile games against Chelsea and Arsenal and four in eight games either side of the new year, but England's head coach Roy Hodgson is convinced that his temperament is improving with age.
Asked about the red card when naming his squad for the current double-header, Hodgson said: "He made a mistake, he's held his hand up, and publicly admitted it was a mistake. He paid a high price for it because he missed two of the opening games in the European Championship and he won't need me to tell him or remind him. I'm afraid it will be fresh in his memory because you don't forget being sent off. All I can repeat is that his disciplinary record with us is very good. And I've got to say, he certainly hasn't let me down when he's played, so I've got no reason to doubt him."
Dzudovic will not admit to any plan to provoke Rooney; indeed, the Montenegrin strategy appears to be to praise England to the skies. "I still believe that England is the clear favourite to win the group," he said. "England has fantastic attackers and great wingers. They have created big problems to us last time we met. And we must not forget the midfielders, especially Steven Gerrard who is a world-class player. They really have a fantastic team."
All of which makes Montenegro's performances in drawing 0-0 at Wembley and 2-2 in the return the more worthy. "It is a great honour to play at Wembley, not many players in the world had the privilege to make that dream come true. And the result was fantastic, too. Beside us, not many people believed that we will leave London undefeated. That game was an unforgettable experience for me.
"The [second] game was even the better one. We took the chance to clinch the play-off place for the first time ever and it was a great moment of joy for our country, for our fans, for us. The pitch invasion after the game was unreal, fans were celebrating with us... One of those moments that you will remember forever."
The game in Zagreb on Friday between two other former Yugoslav countries, Croatia and Serbia, was a reminder of the role patriotism plays in that part of the world. As Dzudovic put it of the current squad and their recent unbeaten run: "We play together for a long time, we are strong as a group, as a family. All of us, no matter if he starts the game or watches it from bench or from the stands, thinks, wants and dreams the same thing. We have deserved this string of results with proper approach to every game and opponent. As a team we know what we want from each game and we know how to achieve that. The great form of our strikers also plays a big part in that."
Rooney and the rest will need to be not only on their best behaviour but on something close to their best form.
Montenegro v England is on ITV on Tuesday, kick-off 8pm
December 2002 First red card of senior career.
November 2004 Substituted against Spain, throws down armband and swears.
September 2005 Sent off at Villarreal after sarcastically applauding referee.
June 2006 Sent off in World Cup quarter-final for stamping on Ricardo Carvalho.
August 2006 Sent off in pre-season friendly.
March 2007 Suspension after successive yellows for England.
May 2008 Lucky to escape red card in 2-0 win over USA.
March 2009 Second yellow against Fulham for throwing ball away.
October 2010 Yellow card amid frustration of draw at home to Montenegro.
April 2011 Swears into camera at West Ham, banned for two games.
June 2010 Swears at camera after draw with Algeria.
October 2011 Sent off in Montenegro.
October, November 2012 Yellow cards against Chelsea and Arsenal.
Total cards (11 seasons) : 101 yellow, 5 red.Reuse content