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Mar 24, 2013

England test rouses Dejan

"The English players felt it last time they came here but this time will be something else," says Montenegrin striker Dejan Damjanovic. "We know we can do it. The whole country is waiting for this, the passion is so high, you can't imagine it."

The biggest game of Montenegro's history is approaching in the shape of England and Damjanovic is happy to tell ESPN all about what is in store for Roy Hodgson's men in Podgorica in Tuesday's vital qualifier for the 2014 World Cup. A win would put the Balkan nation five points clear of the Three Lions with four qualifiers left. In short, it would be massive.

Damjanovic, known simply as 'Dejan' in Korea where he has been the top striker in the K-League and one of the most feared marksmen in Asia since heading east in 2007, would love nothing more than to play at the World Cup. His place of work is Seoul World Cup stadium, a stunning arena that hosted the opening match of the 2002 tournament when Senegal shocked France.

It was a tournament that, for a while at least, belonged to the underdogs. The Brave Falcons are happy to play that role against England and with just over 600,000 people living in the country, who can blame them? A successful campaign will mean that Montenegro will easily supplant Trinidad and Tobago to become the smallest nation, in population terms, to appear at the World Cup.

"It's hard to believe that we can win but we will not give up. It is a small stadium. The pitch may not be great and it could be a rainy night," laughs Damjanvovic.

He laughs often and he was positively beaming last October in the face of 50,000 Ukrainian scowls. The Olympic Stadium in Kiev was silent as the 31-year-old outpaced the defence to bury his shot past the advancing goalkeeper and give Montenegro a 1-0 win that could prove to be vital. "That was a great night. I made my run and just kept going as I knew the ball was coming. The pass was perfect, the goal seemed so big. I felt like I couldn't miss... Those three points made us believe that we can go to the World Cup."

With England then struggling to a 1-1 draw in Poland, it could turn out to be a crucial 24 hours in Group H but now it is all about Tuesday and scoring the goals that would send Montenegro into dreamland. "I am always confident I can score, I have good technique. Zlatan Ibrahamovic is my role model and inspiration. I want to play like him. I can't but I hope to do something similar and that will be enough for me." Doing something similar does not mean matching the goalscoring exploits of the Swede against England in 2012. "Four goals? Oh man, that will be hard to do! Maybe if they get a couple of red cards and I am given two penalties!"

After being grouped together in qualification for Euro 2012, both games ended all square with England finishing top and Montenegro taking the play-off route that was blocked by the Czech Republic, the two teams know each other well. "I can't say that England have any real weaknesses but they do have advantages. They have a bigger squad and have more options if they want to rotate. For us, it is harder. We have a small squad and small pool of players; we have to really think about yellow cards and injuries. That is the biggest difference between us." But even that has its positives. "We make a good atmosphere around the national team, we are all positive and we fight for each other. The fans recognize this fact. They always support us. We have some great players like Stefan Savic, Marko Basa and Mirko Vucinic who can make a difference on any team. We are together and united. We learnt a lot from Euro 2012 qualification. " Born in Bosnia, the Damjanovics moved to Serbia when the war started in the early nineties. "At the time, Serbia and Montenegro was one country. When they separated, Montenegro recruited players for the national team and with my father's ancestry, we have historic links. Some of our players live in Serbia, some in Montenegro but generally they all have Montenegrin history. When people ask, I always say that I am a Montenegrin from Serbia. I am so happy to represent Montenegro in Korea and Korea in Montenegro."

He has done that well with 123 goals in 204 K-League games, an impressively consistent rate of return in a league regarded by some as Asia's strongest and regarded by all as a tough hunting ground for strikers Damjanovic's goals have helped Seoul to two titles in the last three years and the team is one of the favourites to lift the 2013 Asian Champions League trophy. "I have improved as a player a lot since coming to Korea, there is a totally different style of play here and I had to adapt. I run more these days, I fight more, I have improved my heading and generally, everything. Physically, this league is the toughest in Asia." His prowess was recognised in 2012 with a $5 million bid from Guangzhou R&F. When that was turned down, the Chinese team signed Yakubu Aiyegbeni. Damjanovic has no regrets. "I am happy in Seoul. I haven't been in great form so far this season, I can't say why, but it is still early and I am ready and fit to play."

He regrets the fact that Rio Ferdinand will not play, a defender he rates very highly. "We know that England have lots of good players and whoever plays will be very good but I wanted to face Rio. He is a fine player. I scored two goals against Manchester United but this time I will be happy with one." In that 2009 exhibition, Seoul ended up losing 3-2 to the English team with Damjanovic causing problems for the backline that soon had Sir Alex Ferguson, in friendliest pre-season friendly mode just minutes before, scowling on the sidelines.

That was just a bit of fun, Tuesday is deadly serious. "It is going to be hard but we all know that it's one game, it's 90 minutes and anything can happen in 90 minutes. This is a once in a lifetime chance for us. After this, many of us in the team will not get another chance. I just want to say to England, that you should be careful because you are going to have a hell of a game. We will give everything, everything we have."

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