"Montenegro are not scared of anybody. We weren't afraid during the war, so we won't be afraid of this." Given how severely Mirko Vucinic's hometown of Niksic was pounded in the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, the Montenegro captain was to be believed yesterday when he spoke of an unflinching approach to playing England tonight.
But the story of how the second smallest of the world's top 100 football nations might go toe-to-toe with the sport's mother nation – "Football was born on their island," their FA president Dejan Savicevic acknowledges in tonight's programme – has been scrambled. Victory in the 17,500-capacity Podgorica City Stadium would represent comfortably the greatest moment in the nascent country's sporting history, but a play-off place for next summer's European Championship finals is an infinitely greater prize and Montenegro's new manager Branko Brnovic has no need of fairytales.
Brnovic effectively admitted yesterday that his side could not beat Fabio Capello's team because he has decided to keep back three players on a caution – defenders Milan Jovanovic and Marko Basa and midfielder Nikola Drincic – for Tuesday's visit to Switzerland, where victory could deliver them a play-off place. "If we had the whole squad at our disposal, we could even have beaten England," said Brnovic, who can afford to lose and for the Swiss to win in Cardiff, if his players, in turn, triumph on Tuesday.
There is not much mirth in Brnovic. The English press fraternity's inquiry about those five Montenegrin players on a booking who will start tonight being warned to watch their tackles was all that tickled him. "They are professional. I can't tell them anything. The only thing I'd insist is that they don't get a yellow card for anything stupid," said the manager. His gameplan is likely to be as dour as he is. It is simply to stifle England's midfield and starve Wayne Rooney of possession. "There is no player who can't be stopped," Brnovic insisted yesterday, going back on an earlier admission that dealing with Rooney would be "mission impossible." Vucinic gave the game away. "Yes, [Rooney is a threat] but he can't do anything without the ball at his feet and we'll try and stop him getting it," he said. "That's what we have to do."
But a Balkan fairytale is within the grasp of any manager in possession of a resource like Vucinic, Montenegro's biggest star, who hankered after a move to Arsenal this summer before moving from Roma to Juventus instead. The striker is remembered for whipping off his shorts and placing them over his head after the goal against the Swiss here, which could prove so decisive if the two nations do tie on points. But the captain has generally been in control of himself in the course of scoring 11 goals in 22 games since Montenegro's split from Serbia. Vucinic often drifts to the left and cuts in and his winner against Switzerland in October last year was typical. He slipped away with a burst of pace and finished with a sweet clip from an acute angle over the dive of keeper Marco Wölfli. There are better nights for Capello to face a selection crisis at right-back; Vucinic will revel in any spaces on that flank.
"England will have their own problems wondering how to deal with Mirko and [Stevan] Jovetic," Brnovic observed and the brilliant Fiorentina 21-year-old who has drawn amusement in Italy from his tonsorial similarity to Brian May also needed no introduction. It is unclear how close Sir Alex Ferguson came to signing the floating forward they call "Jo-Jo" when the striker, then 17 years old, was helping himself to what would be a tally of 25 goals in 76 appearances for Partizan Belgrade. Manchester United did watch the Montenegrin closely but opted instead to sign Zoran Tosic and Adem Ljajic from the Serbian club instead.
After a year out with a career-threatening cruciate injury, Jovetic's performance against Wales last month revealed that he is back to a standard which also elicited interest from Sven-Goran Eriksson's Manchester City. Jovetic is on home territory – he left local Podgorica team Mladost to join Partizan in 2003 – and tonight is the best chance to remind England of his ability since his two-goal first-half salvo which condemned Liverpool to Champions League defeat in Florence two years and prompted Rafael Benitez's interest.
Montenegro has an eye-catching way of committing England's players' names to their own language. Tonight's match programme details players like Esli Kol, Dzon Teri and Veyn Runi. It falls to Brnovic, in his first match in charge, to create a script which will finish the job Zlatko Kranjcar started. Reasons for Kranjcar's dismissal include a suggestion that his hero status was beginning to eclipse Savicevic. "I don't see why it would be seen as a bizarre [decision]," insisted Brnovic. "It was the judgment from our FA. People thought that was a wise decision. But there's no extra pressure. It has not had an effect like that."
The world's 26th-ranked nation have reached this threshold with limited ambition, their wins generally involving scoring once and maintaining that lead, and the new manager seems to have no greater goal. Brnovic picked up, for example, on the fact that England have scored in the first 15 minutes of each of their away games. "That's down to the naïvete of the home teams who get caught up in emotions and start attacking, which England punished," he said. "England have very quick players on the break and they can use the counter-attack as a strong weapon. They're a very strong side in every way, but we will try to find weaknesses and exploit them."
And if there is a lead to defend, there is always Vucinic's lack of fear to fall back on. "The fighting spirit that we have is in our genes," the manager concluded. "But also from the knowledge of the qualities of our boys. The guys we do have available tomorrow still have the quality to surprise England, I'm sure of that."