By Marcus Cleaver
The England Players left the Wembley pitch last night to a chorus of boos from the home fans that has almost become a parody of itself. The reason for the outcry was a pretty poor performance by the team which resulted in a goalless draw with Montenegro. Meanwhile up in the commentary box, BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson bemoaned the previous 90 minutes and claimed that “teams like Montenegro should be rolled over”. Is this really the case though? This report looks behind the lowly reputation and uncovers this growing force in European football.
After the breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, Serbia and Montenegro became united in a political union but this was always a very flimsy affair. Then, as Germany made the final preparations for the 2006 World Cup, Montenegrins went to the polls and voted for independence. Serbia and Montenegro competed at the tournament as a united nation for the last time and went out in disappointing fashion with no points and a humiliating 6-0 defeat at the hands of Argentina.
Things were slow to get going for the new Montenegro side as it was Serbia who took the place in EURO 2008 Qualifying and the Montenegrin FA was not registered in time to compete. This also meant that the team had to start in 199th place in the FIFA rankings with no ranking points whatsoever and were still in this position more than a year after independence. However once things got started, Montenegro began to force their way up the ranking positions thanks to local born manager Zoran Filipović who was praised by players and press alike. They won their first ever international 2-1 against Hungary and despite a disappointing showing in the Kirin Cup, went on to beat the likes of Kazakhstan and Norway, scoring three goals in each game.
The first series of competitive games for the side was the qualification round for the recent World Cup. Despite failure to qualify for the tournament in South Africa they did better than expected and managed draws with both Bulgaria and Ireland as well as a narrow defeat to Italy. When Filipović left the national side at the beginning of this year he had secured a 126 place jump in the FIFA rankings to 73rd and his successor Zlatko Kranjčar has continued in this vein during the current qualifying campaign. In fact before last night Montenegro had a 100% record in qualifying Group G with wins over Wales, Bulgaria and Switzerland and after the game with England they are still undefeated and are yet to concede a goal. In fact at the start of this qualifying campaign, Montenegro were the lowest ranked team in the group but the latest rankings put them inside the top 40 for the first time in their short history.
The Montenegrin domestic league should also not be ignored. This year the Montenegrin First League has once again flown up the UEFA co-efficient rankings, jumping from 47th to 43rd despite being in existence for a mere four seasons. Although most of the national team play their football outside of their home country, this should not detract away from the tiny European states ability to grow its own talent. In fact the two main stars of the national side, Stevan Jovetić of Fiorentina and Mirko Vučinić of Roma both began their careers for their local clubs (Mladost Podgorica and Sutjeska Nikšić respectively).
Unfortunately, Montenegro are often believed to be a two-man team based on the out-and-out success of the aforementioned superstars of Serie A. Now they are starting to prove that they are much more than this since Jovetić was ruled out for six months in August and talismanic front man Vučinić also missed the game at Wembley through injury. Instead the Montenegrins were reliant on relative unknowns but it is a credit to them and their manager that they resolutely held their 4-5-1 shape and successfully defended England’s persistent attacks whilst still causing some problems for the home side in the final third, even hitting the crossbar late on.
So, Mark Lawrenson, Montenegro are not the sort of team that should be just ‘rolled over’ but are a real force in European football despite being such a small country tucked away in South-East Europe. Now at the top of Group G having played half of their games it looks increasingly likely that these minnows will qualify for the tournament proper and could well spring a surprise or two in 2012!