- Montenegro v England, World Cup qualifiers
Redemption beckons for Rooney in Montenegro
October 7, 2011. The whistle sounds at 2-2 in Podgorica and the celebrations can begin. England have qualified for Euro 2012 with something in hand, yet the greater joy lies with the hosts. The City Stadium has turned into a party atmosphere. Montenegro, a country with a population of just 625,000, has arrived on the world stage in their second ever qualifying campaign. The play-offs beckon.
There, the Czech Republic's 3-0 aggregate win ended hopes of being part of Poland and Ukraine's party but Montenegro had signposted that they were a dark horse to be feared in qualification. In World Cup 2014 qualifying Group H, they lead both Euro hosts and England too. They boast one of Europe's most coveted players in Stevan Jovetic, Mirko Vucinic is a star for Juventus and Stefan Savic, a Premier League title-winner with Manchester City, is resurrecting his career with Fiorentina after being frozen out at City.
Qualification has gone swimmingly so far. After being pegged back by a talented but underperforming Poland in their opener, nine goals in two games were put past San Marino, followed by an impressive win in Ukraine and Friday's scrubbed win in Moldova. They are two points clear of England while Ukraine and Poland trail far behind in their wake. The confidence gained from that 2011 comeback has been built on and England now need to beat them at the third time of asking. The pair drew 0-0 at Wembley at an earlier juncture of the Euro 2012 campaign.
Memories from the previous meeting are bittersweet for England. Mostly bitter, in fact. It was Fabio Capello who guided the team to a second successive finals. The turn of events, the racism row between John Terry and Anton Ferdinand that precipitated his departure were but two weeks away. Capello now coaches Russia. Terry has retired from international football. Rio Ferdinand officially has not, but his England career is surely at an end after the PR disasters that followed his turning down of the chance to play in this fixture.
And then there is Wayne Rooney. He has memories of that thunderous night in Montenegro. Bad memories. England were 2-1 up in the 73rd minute, cruising to a June residence in picturesque Krakow. Rooney was in possession of the ball, but his touch eluded him, and Miodrag Dzudovic came away with it. The Montenegrin was not on the ball too long as Rooney's scything slash of his right boot removed Dzudovic's balance. It was an act of sudden violence never in keeping with what had been an even-tempered match.
A summarily dismissed Rooney loped down the tunnel in realisation that his idiotic actions might have cost him his dream summer. A three-match ban meant he would miss the group stage. It led to weeks of heartache until the ban was lessened to two matches, with Capello leading the case for the defence and taking the blame on himself for not taking Rooney off at half-time when he was in a distracted mood. The day before, Rooney's father, Wayne Rooney Senior had been implicated in a betting scam, a charge now dropped. The Rooney family were frontpage news and were once again on the Saturday morning.
Even after that partial reprieve, Rooney's Euro 2012 was ruined. He may have scored against Ukraine in the final group game but his preparation for the finals was a mess, including a trip to Las Vegas. His performance in the finals was poor. Tuesday offers a chance for reprieve, for redressal. Rooney could do with it to rescue a season of diminishing importance for his club side, and to ease his team's path to Brazil.
At 27, Rooney is in danger of following down a similar path of his former strike partner, Michael Owen, though at least he largely has his health. What might have been the greatest of England careers needs a great performance at a major tournament and Podgorica would lay the pathway to that redemption. His stupidity there last time ruined the sense of satisfaction that qualification should have brought his country. There can be no excuse for a similar outburst this time.
Montenegro player to watch - Stevan Jovetic. As Rafael Benitez began his final season at Liverpool, the subject of one of his many battles with the club's Texan/American owners was the failure to sign Fiorentina's thrilling young star in the summer of 2009. Benitez would not have enjoyed his 'told you so' moment when Jovetic turned in a match-winning performance against Liverpool in the Champions League a few weeks later. The comparisons were made with Lionel Messi, but progress was stalled by a cruciate injury he had only just recovered from when England last visited. Now starring once again for the Viola, he has been at the vanguard of his club's revival. Arsenal are heavily linked with his signature but he is believed to be waiting on their presence in next season's Champions League.
England player to watch - Joleon Lescott. During England's cakewalk in San Marino's surely ironically-named Olympic Stadium, Lescott was handed the captain's armband for the last 24 minutes as Frank Lampard left the field. His seniority as his team's most experienced outfield player was revealing of how much has changed in the last two years. Then, England had a central defensive unit to be relied upon, but events have overtaken that. Lescott, now the old hand, has never let Hodgson down, and was outstanding at the Euros. Meanwhile, however, he is set to leave Manchester City after being frozen out by Roberto Mancini, with a return to Everton deemed most likely. Hodgson will hope he has been able to preserve his best for England.
Key battle: Stefan Savic v Danny Welbeck. Savic has plenty to prove to English eyes. He spent a season being seen as a weak link at Manchester City, and was cashed in last summer to bring in the far more impressive Matija Nastasic into central defence. He has seemed far more comfortable at Fiorentina playing alongside Jovetic. Savic will likely come up against a former crosstown rival in Welbeck, a young man now trusted on the big occasions for both club and country. Welbeck rewarded Hodgson at the Euros with a great goal against Sweden, and United with a goal in the Bernabeu, to belie a growing reputation as a non-scoring striker. The reason his poor strike rate is ignored by his managers is work rate and the intelligence to follow tactical instructions to the letter. He is also a decent and experienced foil for Rooney.
Trivia: Montenegro's football history is brief, since their players were part of the former Yugoslavia's team and then joined with Serbia until 2006 but Montenegrins have a considerable legacy in the game. Dejan Savicevic and Predrag Mijatovic both scored goals in Champions League finals for AC Milan and Real Madrid respectively.
Stats: Welbeck's rivals for a starting place will be Jermain Defoe and Daniel Sturridge. He cannot match their Premier League scoring rates - a goal every 1,102 minutes to Defoe's 215 and Sturridge's 134 - but must still be favoured to get in ahead of two players who both scored against San Marino.
Odds: Montenegro are 4.75 to win at Bet 365, while England are a shade under odds-on at 1.75. The eminently possible draw is 3.50.
Prediction: A repeat scoreline of that October 2011 meeting. 2-2 will leave England desperately needing to beat Montenegro at Wembley to avoid the play-offs.