England braced for Montenegro battle
Hodgson's men will be out to win crunch tie and move a step closer to World Cup qualification
Agence France-Presse in Podgorica, Montenegro
Four days on from their 8-0 rout of San Marino, England face a potentially decisive World Cup qualifier today against a Montenegro side who will not be anywhere near as obliging.
With four games still to come in group H, it is too soon to cast the game as a make-or-break encounter, but the ramifications for success and failure are vastly different.
Win, and England will go top of the group, ahead of a kind run-in of fixtures that will see them play three of their final four matches at home. Lose, and they will allow Montenegro to streak five points clear in the contest for the one and only automatic qualifying berth.
Montenegro, 28th in the world rankings, avoided defeat in their two encounters with England in qualifying for Euro 2012 and their Podgorica City Stadium is expected to provide a hostile setting. England manager Roy Hodgson, however, says that his side have been steeled for a scrap ever since the start of the qualifying campaign.
"We always knew this was going to be a bit of a dogfight, so only time will tell whether we can afford to lose [today's] game," he said. "But we are not going there to lose. If Montenegro want the three points they will, hopefully, have to play very well, or we will have to have a very bad day.
"We are going into the game with confidence."
Hodgson is expected to make as many as six changes to the side who demolished San Marino, although centre-back Gary Cahill and forward Theo Walcott will both miss the game through injury.
The England manager has also revealed that Liverpool right-back Glen Johnson should be fit to play, having been excused from duty in Serravalle to rest a toe injury, although he may need a pain-killing injection.
On England's last visit to Podgorica, 17 months ago, they recorded a 2-2 draw that allowed them to secure a place at Euro 2012, where they reached the quarter-finals.
However, the game was marred by the dismissal of striker Wayne Rooney for recklessly kicking out at Montenegro defender Miodrag Dzudovic.
In anticipation that Hodgson's men will once again face an intimidating atmosphere in the Montenegrin capital, England captain Steven Gerrard has urged his teammates to keep their heads.
"It is important we keep 11 men on the pitch because it is going to be a very difficult game," he said. "They will be trying to claim every decision, every foul, and they will be trying to intimidate the ref to make rash decisions. Montenegro are bidding to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since gaining independence from Serbia in 2006.
Montenegro coach Branko Brnovic has raised the stakes ahead of the showdown with England by claiming that Hodgson's team are anxious about the game.
Brnovic claimed England were worried about the state of the pitch at the Podgorica City Stadium but said an unfavourable playing surface would be more damaging for his team.
"As far as I know, the English have always favoured long passes and I can't see why they are complaining about this," he said.
"We, with Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic, or England? It supports the fact they are more scared of this game than we are. They are also intimidated by our fans and I don't see the reason why. We do not under-estimate or over-estimate any team."