England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford during a training session at St George’s Park ahead of their match against Montenegro. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Gradski Stadion is one of Europe’s less accommodating venues for international football. Only around 15,000 will cram into Montenegro’s home ground to see if England can be overcome on Monday but they will make the noise of a crowd double the size.
The stands at either end are concrete, compact and severe, hemmed close to the bylines in a manner reminiscent of Loftus Road. The home fans have a reputation for pushing the boundaries and England have found their limits tested in previous visits.
Only Kyle Walker remains from the squad who travelled in 2013 and returned bruised by a late equaliser from Dejan Damjanovic. That was low-key fare compared with what passed 17 months previously on a night that brought Montenegro as close to success as they have been since being granted Uefa membership in January 2007.
On a chaotic evening that had started serenely, England lost their way. Ashley Young and Darren Bent seemed to have put them in an impregnable position but then Elsad Zverotic pulled one back, Wayne Rooney lost his head and was sent off, and Andrija Delibasic sparked a pitch invasion by levelling in stoppage time. The point took England to Euro 2012 anyway; it gave Montenegro a play-off spot, too, but they still await qualification for a major finals and will need to upset the odds again.
“Things that happen in the past are just nice results for Montenegro,” said their manager, the veteran former Partizan Belgrade coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic. His side began their qualifying campaign respectably on Friday in Sofia, ending up unfortunate to draw 1-1 with Bulgaria when their hosts were awarded an 82nd-minute penalty for a challenge Vladimir Jovovic appeared to have made outside the area. “When you concede a goal after the referee’s mistake it’s hard not to comment on it,” said the midfielder Marko Jankovic. Tumbakovic admitted they had “lost two points” but also said their priority had been to depart unbeaten.
That aim having been achieved, an inconsistent Montenegro can legitimately sense an opportunity. Group A of the Euro 2020 qualifiers has a curious feel; England are overwhelming favourites but an argument could be made for any of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Tumbakovic’s team making second place. All fall into the “banana skin” category and, while results against England may not be decisive, any major improvement on Czech Republic’s hammering at Wembley should breed optimism.
“I’m really trying but I can’t,” Tumbakovic said when asked if he could pinpoint a weakness in the England party. “We in the coaching team are realistic.” But he will be aware England have floundered before in Gradski Stadion. Montenegro have few recognisable names, especially with Stevan Jovetic sidelined, but Tumbakovic suggested Stefan Savic – the Atlético Madrid centre-back and, like Jovetic, once of Manchester City – is winning his battle against the injury that kept him out of Friday’s game. The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
Montenegro also have a striker on form. Stefan Mugosa scored a beautifully-taken goal against Bulgaria, adding to three Nations League strikes last autumn. A hot prospect in his early 20s, Mugosa did not make the grade at Kaiserslautern and 1860 Munich but averages better than a goal every other game for Incheon United, his team in South Korea. “It’s a special feeling for me to play and score goals for the national team,” Mugosa said. At 27 he may now be fulfilling his potential and should partner the tricky Fatos Beciraj, a veteran of that historic match in 2011, up front.
This is a workmanlike side in the main and England can improve on previous outcomes if they master the heat from behind the goalmouths. Montenegro were fined for their fans’ celebrations after the comeback from two down and Joe Hart was among those targeted with missiles on England’s next visit, with brawls also breaking out between home supporters.
“The history of our duels tells us we can compete,” Jankovic said of the on-pitch skirmishes. Montenegro are rarely rolled over and, as a minimum, England must expect another fight.