Ask Mirko Vucinic how Montenegro will play against England and he makes it sound very simple. “As the coach said, we will park a bus in front of our goal, kick the ball as hard as we can and see what’s going to happen,” he said. “We can take England on and we can give them a hard time in Podgorica.”
The Juventus striker was grinning when he said it, and admitted “this is a game we have been waiting for from the beginning”, and that “matches against teams like England are something special”. But England know just how awkward as opponents Montenegro can be, having twice drawn against them in qualifying for the European Championship.
“This is a massive game for us and our fans,” said the Fiorentina forward Stevan Jovetic. “I am proud that we expect such a great team as group leaders. We showed that we can play with England, now we have a lot of self-confidence. We are very close to play-offs and with a positive result against England we will fight for first place in the group.”
A 1-0 victory over Moldova in Chisinau on Friday, achieved through Vucinic’s 78th-minute volley despite going down to 10 men when Milorad Pekovic was sent off just after the hour means that Montenegro top the group by two points and they could put daylight between themselves and England with a victory tomorrow.
“After the win in Moldova, I know that fans will have massive expectations but we must be realistic,” Vucinic said. “We are still the youngest European national team and England are a football heavyweight. What we can do is give everything we have, every last drop of sweat and blood, if it is necessary for a good result.”
In a sense the win over Moldova was typical of what is best about Montenegrin football: they dug in and battled ferociously before the quality of their vaunted strike pairing of Vucinic and Jovetic settled the game. The fighting spirit is part of the national myth of Monetengrins, who like to regard themselves as a hardy mountain people, as celebrated in Tennyson’s 1877 poem “Montenegro”: “O smallest among peoples! / Rough rock-throne / Of Freedom! Warriors beating back the swarm / Of Turkish Islam for five hundred years, / Great Tsernogora!” Tsernagora was Tennyson’s transliteration of the local word for Montenegro; both names translate as Black Mountain.
Vucinic, at 29, is the elder of the two strikers. He was called up to Serbia-Montenegro’s squad for the 2006 World Cup before being forced to withdraw with injury, and was a key figure in Juventus’s Scudetto win last year. Jovetic is six years younger and has been linked with a £20m move to Arsenal. “I am Fiorentina player and on Tuesday I will give my best for my country,” he said. “That’s all I’m thinking about.”
Both are capable of playing anywhere across the front line or dropping deep and that, combined with years of playing together, has given them a fluency and a mutual understanding. If one plays high, the other will drop back or pull wide, confounding marking schemes while essentially allowing the other outfield players to sit deep in two banks of four. “We play close together in the national side and we often switch positions with each other,” Vucinic said. “I would like to do that at Juve as he is a countryman and a really strong player.”
“Montenegro would be the best football team in the world if football was only about attacking,” the former Yugoslavia coach Ivica Osim commented. “But football is about defence too.” Montenegro continues to produce more high-level players than its size would suggest it ought to – it has a population of 653,000, around the size of Sheffield and Rotherham – but nobody could claim that the rest of the side is at the same level as the front two, even though the defender Stefan Savic had a spell at Manchester City before joining Jovetic at Fiorentina. What they lack in ability, Montenegro tend to make up for with weight of numbers, packing men behind the ball, looking to absorb pressure and then break quickly, getting the ball and support up to the front pair.
In that, Branko Brnovic (below), Montenegro’s coach, has essentially continued the work of Zlatko Kranjcar (Niko’s father), who was dismissed with two games of Euro qualifying remaining. Kranjcar’s departure was controversial, with dark rumours that it had little to do with football, and has led to a split within the sport.
Dejan Savicevic, probably Montenegro’s greatest-ever player, is now president of the football federation and has been widely criticised for that decision, which came after a defeat in Wales threatened to prevent Montenegro from finishing in the top two in the group and so missing out on a play-off spot. A leader in the daily newspaper Vijesti described Savicevic’s decision to appoint Kranjcar as the best he had ever made and the decision to sack him as the worst. The pro-Serbian daily Dan, meanwhile, continues to have a frosty relationship with Savicevic after condemning him for his overt support for independence in the days leading to the split in 2006.
Brnovic served as assistant to Kranjcar and had no experience of being a manager in his own right before being appointed. “We are leaders, we can be patient, and there is no need to go forward from the start,” he said. “England must attack. The most important thing is not to concede and I am sure we will have space up front. We are very dangerous in counter-attacks. Jovetic and Vucinic against Moldova didn’t show what they can do, so I am sure they will have extra motivation against England, after a big win in Chisinau. We will maybe park a bus in defence, but we also have two Ferraris in attack.”
What makes those Ferraris exceptional is not just Montenegro’s small population: it’s also that the domestic league is so dismal. Montenegro’s league is ranked just 41st in Uefa. Not a single one of the squad for the game against England is based domestically. In a sense that is a historical issue: Ante Mirocevic, in 1978, was the first player from a Montenegrin club to be called up to the Yugoslavia national team, while no Montenegrin club ever won the Yugoslav league. Many, like Jovetic, follow the path to Belgrade and either Partizan or Red Star, and then to a bigger side in western Europe.
Which leaves the question, of how Montenegro continues to produce such talent. “Montenegrins are talented at football and at sport in general,” says Jovetic. “However, the most important thing was that I, as well as Mirko, had good training conditions, high-class trainers, and of course the will for success. Without these things our talent wouldn’t be enough for Serie A.”
It’s all part of the heroic tradition. Defensive resolve and a dangerous striker pairing have already led Montenegro to 28th in the Fifa world rankings; with a win tomorrow, belief will grow that it could lead the tiny nation all the way to the World Cup finals in Brazil.
The full monte: three to watch
* Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina, striker) Age 23 Caps 23 Goals 10
Comfortable as playmaker or goalscorer, Jovetic has been linked with a move to the Premier League in recent years. Liverpool fans may recall him scoring both goals in a 2-0 defeat in Florence in 2009.
* Mirko Vucinic (Juventus, striker) Age 29 Caps 30 Goals 14
Montenegro’s leading scorer completes an exciting strike force, which could benefit from England’s injury problems. Best known for his finishing abilities, he found the net against Celtic last month.
* Marko Basa (Lille, defender) Age 30 Caps 21 Goals 1
A dominant centre-half, Basa provides the steel in the Montenegrin backline. Will probably partner Miodrag Dzudovic – the man who goaded Wayne Rooney into lashing out in 2011 – at the heart of the home side’s defence tomorrow.