On Tuesday, Montenegro play Moldova in Podgorica. It's a game whose significance to England's hopes of World Cup qualification has largely been overlooked – certainly by comparison with the fact Ukraine finish their campaign against San Marino – but, like Ukraine, Montenegro can realistically expect to finish with a win, and that puts even greater emphasis on match at Wembley. Put simply, if England draw against Montenegro for the fourth time in a row, they will have to beat Poland on Tuesday even to make the play-offs. Lose to Montenegro and, unless Ukraine slip up tonight against Poland, they are almost certainly out of the World Cup.
But this is a huge game for Montenegro, too – perhaps even more than for England, for they know that, for a country with a population of 600,000 – half that of Trinidad & Tobago, who remain the smallest nation ever to play in a World Cup finals – this sort of opportunity is not going to present itself regularly.
Theirs, though, has been a troubled buildup. The last thing a country with such limited resources can afford is to lose key men but two of the only four players who are regulars at major clubs, the Lille centre-back Marko Basa and the Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic, are out with injury, and they have lost the midfielder Miodrag Pekovic and their first-choice goalkeeper, Mladen Bozovic, as well.
Bozovic's absence offers a chance of rehabilitation for Vukasin Poleksic, whose career has never recovered since his Debrecen side conceded four first-half goals to lose a Champions League group match 4-3 to Fiorentina in October 2009. Although there was no proof he let the goals in deliberately, it later emerged that he had been contacted before the game by match-fixers and in June 2010 he was banned for two years for failing to report the approach. Since then, he has played in just three league games for the club.
"This is the most important game in the history of Montenegrin football and in my career," Poleksic said. "I haven't played regularly almost three years, but I am ready, physically and mentally. Anything could happen in 90 minutes: maybe I could become a hero and maybe we can beat England. We must think positively and not just moan about missing players."
Given what he has been through, it's perhaps not surprising that Poleksic looks on the furore surrounding Joe Hart with bemusement, obeying the first commandment of the goalkeepers' union always to stick up for fellow keepers. "He's one of the best in the world," the 31-year-old said. "Look, a goalkeeper who plays for Manchester City, a club who can buy any goalkeeper in the world, must be top class. I really don't know why the media are questioning Roy Hodgson's choice. A goalkeeper can make a mistake like any other player. I don't remember Hart letting England down."
Three times Montenegro have drawn with England in the past and Poleksic sees no reason for them to change their approach. "It is important that we don't concede an early goal," he said, "and then we can wait for a chance for a counterattack. The pressure is on them, because for them it would be a disaster not to go to the World Cup. We have nothing to lose, especially after so many problems with injuries."
Another player hoping to take advantage of a rare opportunity is Dejan Damjanovic, the FC Seoul striker whose arrival from the bench in Podgorica in March turned what had looked like being a comfortable England win into a hard-fought draw. The Montenegro coach, Branko Brnovic, has spoken of how hard he finds it repeatedly having to tell Damjanovic that he has been left out for Montenegro's two real stars, Vucinic and Stevan Jovetic, describing him as his "joker", but on Friday he will have his chance from the start.
Last month, Damjanovic scored the opener as Seoul beat Esteghlal 4-2 on aggregate in the Asian Champions League semi-final (the former Aston Villa left-back Jlloyd Samuel an unlikely scorer for the Iranian giants). With the final coming up in a month, this is turning into an extraordinary autumn to the 32-year-old's career. "We have shown that we can compete with them, even with Wayne Rooney in the team," Damjanovic said. "We drew at Wembley [in a Euro 2012 qualifier] without Vucinic and Jovetic and we drew recently in Podgorica after a great performance in the second half. In these qualifiers they still haven't beaten us, Ukraine or Poland, so we know they are not extraterrestrials, just players."
"What can we do?" asked Stefan Savic, the former Manchester City centre-back who joined Fiorentina last year. "We'll be without several important players, but we are still a good team. We have a great spirit and I hope we keep that at Wembley. We could worry that we are not at full strength, but we are a hard nut to beat. And, who knows? Maybe England break their teeth trying to break this nut."