England need to make light of Montenegro wind-ups and not lump it

Perhaps it was a deliberate ploy by Branko Brnovic to get under the skin of Roy Hodgson's players.

If so, it was not one of the more original attempts at staring down the opposition or even particularly accurate once a little bit of research had been undertaken. Montenegro, it turns out, are partial to the occasional ball over the top themselves. The official statistics put their long-ball ratio at 12.6%. England – unrefined, lump-it-up England – are at 9.55%. Only Spain, Germany and Belgium have hit fewer back-to-front passes in the World Cup qualifying programme.

"Mind games" Hodgson called it. Which ought to be enough for everyone to roll their eyes. We should know what to expect if England win, too: a cast-iron guarantee one of the players will reveal they stuck all the newspaper cuttings about being "scared" and "arrogant", all courtesy of Brnovic, on the dressing-room wall as a source of motivation.

In truth it does not really work that way and England should surely have enough incentive without over-analysing some see-through remarks from the opposition manager. There is, after all, the possibility of going five points behind Montenegro if England lose. That could become eight when Ukraine visit Podgorica in June, in a group in which only the winners automatically qualify. As it stands, Portugal, Sweden, Croatia and, most frighteningly of all, Spain are possible opponents in November's play-offs. That alone should sharpen minds.

That, of course, is the worst-case scenario when England can alternatively take a position of real strength in Group H. "If we win, we will go top with three of the last four games at Wembley," Hodgson said. "We will also have players returning to the team who unfortunately are missing this time." It was refreshing to hear someone see beyond the ordinary English way of contemplating the potential for bad news first.

Montenegro, however, cannot be taken lightly in any respect. It is true the entire population of this Balkan state is smaller than that of Leeds and that their national stadium is classic old Fourth Division. It is also a fact this team have not lost on their own ground for 16 months and went unbeaten through 2012.

This will be England's toughest examination since going out of Euro 2012 against Italy and they will need to take care of the ball an awful lot better.

As for the peripheral issues, there has been some guff over the last few days. The idea, for example, that an array of the best English players from Liverpool, Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs might somehow be intimidated by a stadium that holds 12,000 people. Hodgson was reminded on Monday that a seat had been thrown at the Polish goalkeeper. A local journalist then informed him how England had been "welcomed heartily" when Fabio Capello brought the side here in October 2011, to the point that the home fans applauded God Save The Queen. However noisy it is inside the City Stadium, it will be nothing like the atmosphere Wayne Rooney faces when he plays at Anfield. Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, James Milner et al are sturdy characters.

Rooney has been a particularly heavily debated subject, bearing in mind his red card for kicking out in that 2-2 draw. What has not been mentioned so much is that he has had only seven yellow cards in 73 matches since. If anything, it should be more of a concern that he has a tendency to play within himself when the scrutiny is on his temperament. Rooney has made some daft decisions in his time. But he is not Mario Balotelli.

"The important thing is to make sure the players feel confident and able to do the job," Hodgson said. "It's about us doing the things we pride ourselves in doing well. One of those will be our defending. We will be working hard to get behind the ball when we lose it, working hard to close people down, squeeze the game and not give their technical players a chance to show off their skills.

"But when we get the ball we hope to get forward quickly to start passing the ball in areas where we will hurt them. We want our passing to cause problems for the opposition. And I have the players who can do that."

There are still legitimate concerns (even ignoring the fact Podgorica shuddered to an earth tremor at 8.20am on Sunday). Joleon Lescott has played only two minutes of Premier League football in seven weeks. Chris Smalling's previous appearance for Manchester United before Hodgson named his squad was at Moss Lane, Altrincham, as an over-age player in an Under-21s' match against Wolves.

Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic have the talent to menace any defence in the world, never mind one featuring two centre-backs who are fourth choice at their clubs.

That, ultimately, might be where this game rests rather than getting wound up about a few mischievous remarks from the Montenegro coach. Though, of course, from an England perspective, it would probably make a victory feel that little bit more satisfying.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor in Podgorica, for The Guardian on Monday 25th March 2013 22.48 Europe/London

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