A first UEFA European Championship as an independent nation could provide a daunting prospect, but Montenegro coach Zlatko Kranjčar believes his charges have a real chance of qualifying.
Kranjčar makes his debut on the Montenegro bench in Wednesday's friendly in FYR Macedonia, beginning preparations for UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying where his side face England, Switzerland, Bulgaria and Wales. Montenegro secured nine points in ten 2010 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, losing only three times but still finishing fifth in their six-team section. However, their 53-year-old former Croatia coach is confident Montenegro can earn at least a play-off place on the road to Poland and Ukraine.
Analysing Group G, Kranjčar told UEFA.com: "England are clear favourites, the other teams are of similar strength. Switzerland, Bulgaria and Wales are not better than Montenegro. I want to fight for second place, that's my goal. My players must have the same wish and ambition. The higher you aim, the higher you get."
A club coach in Austria, Egypt, Slovenia, the United Arab Emirates, Slovakia and Iran, Kranjčar's only previous experience of international qualifying was a happy one: leading Croatia to the 2006 World Cup. "I can compare Croatia then to Montenegro now," he said. "In Croatia I had players like Dado Pršo, Ivica Olić, Luka Modrić and Niko Kranjčar; now I have Mirko Vučinić, Stevan Jovetić and Simon Vukčević who are, at least, at the same level as them."
What Montenegro do not have, compared to that Croatia side, is a large pool of players with international experience. "I am aware of that, but I have watched every match played by the Montenegrin national team on DVD and saw a very talented group," Kranjčar said. "The Montenegro job is big challenge for me."
The crux of that challenge is stepping up from becoming a side who are hard to beat to a team that wins regularly. "I wonder why Montenegro had six draws from ten World Cup qualifiers?" Kranjčar said. "All these draws might have been victories if the players had just a little more passion and a winning mentality. Also, I noticed tactical discipline could be better, especially in defence. These are the things which I want to improve. If I succeed, Montenegro will be a very dangerous side."
However, for his first game Kranjčar will not have his full squad. He transferred ACF Fiorentina attacker Jovetić and Genoa CFC left-back Ivan Fatić to the squad for Wednesday's UEFA European Under-21 Championship qualifier against Bulgaria rather than the senior friendly. Defenders Savo Pavićević, Radoslav Batak, Miodrag Džudović and Vladimir Božović are all injured.
"We have these problems, we will have only two training sessions, we don't know each other personally – but I want a positive result in Skopje," the coach said. "It will be very important for me and for the players.
I am confident and full of optimism, not just for the first game, but for every match, because I believe in this team and in myself."
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