Crunch time has arrived at last in group H with England, Montenegro, Ukraine and Poland all having a realistic chance of qualifying.
Roy Hodgson has already labelled this pair of games as the most important in his career- the prospect of failing to qualify would almost certainly render his management untenable.
Montenegro offer a testing- yet achievable- challenge, but England are yet to beat a team other than Moldova or San Marino going into the final round of matches.
Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney are both fit following absences against Scotland last month.
Theo Walcott and Ashley Cole are ruled out, while Joe Hart is certain to keep his position in goal, despite doubts following his poor performance against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last week.
Hodgson has options- he set up England in a 4-2-3-1 in the reverse fixture (which ended 1-1) back in March but you’d expect him to stick to the 4-3-3 that he’s preferred more generally in recent times. The return of a very in form Sturridge changes England’s attacking options considerably. While Sturridge played a wide right role in his time at Chelsea, Hodgson will almost certainly start him up front alone where he has excelled for Liverpool this season.
If this happens, you’d imagine Welbeck starting on the left (his more common position for England when he doesn’t start up front), which would leave Rooney out on the right.
In midfield Frank Lampard could be in with a shout of starting, but due to the importance of the game Michael Carrick may be preferred to hold. Steven Gerrard is probably one of very few nailed on starters, while Tom Cleverely’s lack of starting time at United following the acquisition of Mourane Fellaini plays into Jack Wilshere’s hands.
Leighton Baines will get the go ahead after Cole sustained a rib injury during Chelsea’s victory at Norwich last weekend, while Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Kyle Walker look to maintain their places from England’s 0-0 draw in Kiev.
Leighton Baines will get the go ahead after Cole sustained a rib injury
There is a chance though that James Milner may get the nod on the right flank, especially if Jovetic is played on Montengro’s left. Hodgson said that Milner impressed him in City’s 3-1 victory over Everton this weekend, and Man City were also noticeably improved for the last 15 minutes of their defeat to Bayern Munich when Milner was introduced.
Manager Branko Brnovic finds himself in a complex situation; with a vastly inferior goal difference to that of Ukraine, this is probably a match Montenegro need to win if they’re to have any chance of qualification.
How expressive he’ll allow his players to be at Wembley is interesting, particularly with their current injury crisis. Captain Mirko Vucinic, goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic, experienced centre back Marko Basa and midfielder Miodrag Pekovic are all injured, limiting Brnovic’s options.
That said, there’s still plenty of quality in this side. Juventus’ Vucinic is a big loss, but Man City’s Stevan Jovetic still represents a considerable threat to the England defence. Simon Vukcevic (ex Blackburn) will support at either the head of Brnovic’s midfield triangle or out on the right, while Fulham’s Elsad Zverotic has a surprising proficiency for goals given his deep midfield role, if given license to get forward.
Fulham’s Elsad Zverotic has a surprising proficiency for goals
Ball retention has been a constant theme of criticism for this England side, and therefore it makes sense for Hodgson to commit three midfielders in perhaps slightly deeper zones. With that in mind, Carrick’s performance at the foot of England’s midfield triangle could be significant. If Brnovic instructs Vukcevic and Jovetic to press aggressively from the start and put him under pressure, then England’s control on the game could be diminished.
The other key area perhaps relates to Rooney. If given a wide role, you’d expect him to cut inside to increase his influence on the game. Montenegro’s left back, Vladimir Bozovic, is 31 and could easily be exploited if Rooney’s movement and interlink play with Sturridge works. If he does play an inside role, then Walker may find lots of space on the overlap, especially if Jovetic is suited out on the left and fails to track back sufficiently.
Much of the game really depends how Brnovic instructs his players to start. Montenegro were particularly slow off the mark in the reverse fixture – whether he’ll allow England to get a grip on the game given this stage of qualifying will be interesting to see.