Montenegro coach Branko Brnović told UEFA.com that his side are "big contenders" to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and is "sure we will finish the year in style" against San Marino on Wednesday.
Montenegro have gone six games without defeat in 2012 and will replace England at the Group H summit should they extend that streak against a San Marino side they swept aside 6-0 in October. Brnović recognises that his charges are in good company too, alongside reigning European and world champions Spain, whose own unbeaten sequence stands at 15 matches following a similarly flawless year.
"This is a great statistic, but let's talk about that after the match," said Brnović. "I know we're clear favourites against San Marino, but we must prove ourselves on the pitch, not in facts and figures. It's obviously a pleasure to share a statistic with the brilliant Spain, but nobody compares to them," added the 45-year-old coach, who spent six years as a player in the Spanish top flight with RCD Espanyol.
Records are less likely to occupy Brnović's thoughts than his starting XI. Injuries and suspensions have stripped Montenegro of a host of first-choice players, including captain Mirko Vučinić and playmaker Stevan Jovetić. "We have a small pool of players and every absence is a big blow," said Brnović, who conceded over-confidence could be a bigger issue. "Our fans have already awarded us three points, but we must not underestimate San Marino. These matches are dangerous; we have everything to lose."
Indeed, Montenegro's youngsters are expected to deliver on Wednesday. "They must show character and quality and prove they deserve their place," insisted Brnović. "I will ask them for their best. If they take our opponent seriously, I am sure we will finish this year in style." San Marino could struggle to match Montenegro if they maintain the form that has yielded four wins this year, including an eye-catching 1-0 defeat of Ukraine in Kyiv last month.
That was arguably the highest profile scalp in the country's short football history, but one that lived up to their coach's sky-high expectations. "From the start, I have spoken of my confidence in these players," said Brnović. "After our [UEFA EURO 2012] play-off loss to the Czech Republic, I received a lot of criticism – some deserved, some not – but I never lost belief in my squad. Step by step this year, up to our last match in Ukraine, we have risen as a team."
Montenegro trail section pacesetters England by a single point, and the match at home to San Marino represents their game in hand over Roy Hodgson's men. Pole position at New Year is an exciting prospect, but Brnović remains grounded. "I'm satisfied, despite aiming for maximum points from the first four matches," he said. "Our win in Kyiv, though, confirmed we are big contenders in this group. I hope to beat San Marino and then we'll prepare for a crucial game against Moldova in March. After these matches we'll know how far we are from Brazil."