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England must be wary of group's surprise package

Crucial World Cup qualifier in Montenegro is likely to see both teams finding the net

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 2013, 4:41am

England head to Montenegro for Tuesday's second and most difficult part of their away double-header in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, with the result likely to be more crucial to the group H final standings than most would have expected at the start of the qualifying campaign.

Montenegro have been the surprise package of the group, albeit thanks largely to a relatively easy opening to their campaign that included both meetings with the minnows San Marino in their first four games.

They are a growing force, however, and currently stand 28th in the Fifa world rankings, which is 16 places higher than a year ago and puts them among the top 20 European nations.

Both matches against England in qualifying for Euro 2012 ended all-square - 0-0 at Wembley and 2-2 in the return in Podgorica. The away match was most memorable for Wayne Rooney's petulance and sending-off, which resulted in a ban for the first two games of Euro 2012, but other aspects are worth remembering.

England needed only a draw to qualify by that stage, yet they had a positive approach and led 2-0 just past the half-hour mark. They looked much the better side in the first half despite conceding just before the break.

Montenegro, however, had rested some key players in the expectation that their match in Switzerland four days later would decide whether they went into the play-offs. The fact that they troubled England in the second half, even before Rooney's dismissal and the stoppage-time equaliser, suggests a stronger side on Tuesday could cause problems.

The standout result for Montenegro in this qualifying campaign is the 1-0 win in Ukraine, which matches England's result against the same opponents in Euro 2012 and contrasts favourably with England's somewhat laboured home 1-1 against a refreshed Ukraine side in this campaign.

England have been solid under Roy Hodgson, however, with four wins and two draws against teams outside the current world top 25 prior to last night's match in San Marino.

There have been some good results against top 25 teams, too, including last month's 2-1 home friendly win against Brazil.

A shock defeat for England looks unlikely but Montenegro are the handicap pick and over 2.5 goals looks a decent bet, as both teams have scored in most of England's recent matches against good opposition and Montenegro, with Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic leading the attack, usually find the net.

The match of the day on Tuesday is France v Spain, with the world and European champions a solid bet on the handicap in a game that could decide first place in Group I.

The reverse fixture was closely fought and Spain were pegged back to 1-1 by a stoppage-time goal from Olivier Giroud that earned France a deserved point. That ended Spain's run of 24 consecutive victories in qualifying matches, but their record is hardly any less impressive now and they are undefeated in 17 competitive away matches since 2006.

Fifteen of the 17 have been won by Spain and any suspicion that the influence of their star players is beginning to wane was dispelled by Barcelona's historic comeback victory against Milan in the Champions League. The handicap option gives due respect to France, who have improved under Didier Deschamps and can cause some problems with home advantage.

Croatia are involved in a battle for top spot in Group A with Belgium and will go to Wales knowing they must try to match Belgium's 2-0 away win against the same opponents.

That makes Croatia appealing for the win at decent odds that may be unduly influenced by Gareth Bale's presence in the Wales team.

Bale hasn't got the same quality around him that he has at Tottenham and it is notable that both of the big teams in Group A have shut out Wales, with Croatia having won the reverse fixture 2-0.

Ireland, who rarely lose at home against countries outside the elite, are similar odds to Croatia at home to Austria. They should win but a tendency towards low scores makes them a more risky bet.

The big-odds team to consider is Hungary, now rated higher than hosts Turkey. The only four away defeats for Hungary in competitive games in the past five years were against Holland, Portugal and Sweden (twice) and they look overpriced.



Spain, Hungary, Israel, Ireland, Croatia, Yeovil, Doncaster.



1 Spain on handicap Remain extremely difficult to beat

2 Croatia away win Will have to be positive against Wales

3 Yeovil on handicap Only two defeats out of 13 in 2013

4 Over 2.5 goals in Serbia v Scotland Majority of Serbia’s recent home games have been highscoring

5 Over 2.5 goals in Belgium v Macedonia Belgium have the attacking talent to rack up a big score