This is it: the “big one” in Europe. With just two rounds to go in UEFA World Cup qualifying, Group H is about as tight as it’s possible to be. England are unbeaten and, by virtue of that fact, sit top, but Ukraine are just one point behind. So, too, are Montenegro, although their inferior goal difference leaves them in third, without even the possibility of a playoff match to take them into the World Cup.
(MORE: a group-by-group overview of UEFA World Cup qualifying)
But that all could change on Friday night at Wembley. England may have brought the world the beautiful game, but under coach Roy Hodgson, they’re not peddling a brand of soccer that could be described in such a manner. Sure, England triumphed brutally over San Marino (13-0 over two legs) and Moldova (9-0 over two legs) but haven’t managed more than dull draws against their other competitors: 1-1 and 0-0 against Ukraine, 1-1 against Poland, and 1-1 in the first leg against Montenegro. There’s no entertainment here, just a simple grinding out of results, in any manner possible.
Perhaps that’s how it should be. After all, the point is to reach the World Cup, not to put on a dazzling display of theatrical footwork and brilliant backheels while blazing a trail to Brazil. Points dug up through long balls and headed goals count just as much.
The problem is that England need more than a hard fought draw this time: Ukraine are too close behind, and Montenegro face Moldova in the last round. Fortunately for Hodgson, he’s got a healthy squad at his disposal this time around. This is not the cobbled together squad that drew against Ukraine last time; instead, it’s likely Wayne Rooney will be set to sit behind Daniel Sturridge as the two look to lead the Three Lions attack. Ashley Cole misses out through injury, but it’s unlikely anyone will be concerned by the thought of Leighton Baines taking his place at left back. In fact, the only real concern is the form of Joe Hart, who’s made a few marquee mistakes in goal for Manchester City recently. But high profile mistakes are the bane of goalkeepers’ existences, and it’s highly unlikely that the experienced Hart will make a major gaff against Montenegro.
It’s the visitors that should feel nervous. They’re missing injured Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, who may have scored just two goals in qualifying thus far, but has a knack for getting into dangerous positions. Montenegro are also without centerback Marko Basa, while defender Miodrag Dzudovic’s status is questionable. That leaves them relying on Stevan Jovetic, who, thanks to injuries and a bit of bad luck, has barely seen the pitch for Manchester City this season. When Jovetic is in form, he’s a real terror, annoying defenders and looking to score from any angle.
Yet, despite being so close to qualifying for their first World Cup as an independent nation, there seem to be few nerves around the Montenegro camp. Jovetic himself said the pressure is on England, where the fans expect qualification and the media scrutinizes every move and every decision. Montenegrins, meanwhile, seem satisfied with their sides’ performance, and the media are producing heartwarming stories about how the national team loves to play in front of a big crowd. So Montenegro go to Wembley with little pressure, likely to simply play in their regular manner: defensively organized and with an eye toward the rare opportunity to get forward and find a goal.
Finally, both sides may find slight comfort in knowing that Ukraine face Poland this time around. The Poles are not yet eliminated from reaching Brazil, sitting just two points behind Ukraine and Montenegro. A win this time, and they could move into second. But if England and Montenegro play out a draw and Ukraine outplay Poland as they did in the first leg, it could be Ukraine that books a direct flight to Brazil — and with the hapless San Marino on deck for the final round, there will be no overcoming Ukraine’s advantage.