Having scratched and snarled their way to automatic qualification, laughing off Ireland’s tilt in the process, the Serbs arrive in Russia ready to go to war again. And that’s just their fans.
There will be no room for niceties on-field either, pitched into what on paper is a tough group. Can an experienced Serbian side draw on the pain of their demoralising exit at the 2010 finals, and advance to the knockout stages this round?
Manager: Mladen Krstajić
The former defensive hard man and one quarter of the feted “Famous Four” backline that qualified for the 2006 finals undefeated, giving as much up at the rear as a constipated nun. Krstajić leads the latest Slav charges, having stepped into the fray at Christmas, after slap head Slavoljub Musin was ousted at the end of their successful qualifying campaign, for being too successful with older players. Go figure.
It’s safe to assume that Krstajić will rely heavily on robustness and physicality if the Eagles are to make headway in the competition, and let me tell you, he isn’t short of it. Plenty of robusty beauties at his disposal.
Star Player: Nemanja Matić (Manchester United)
Rangey, consistent and combative – so good Mourinho brought him back to Chelsea after they had relinquished him as a youngster – the midfielder has been a major influence in his first season at Old Trafford. Matić has the ability to dictate the game, and will be crucial, not only in out-muscling advancing opponents and breaking up play, but collecting the ball from the back four and launching attacks of his own. His presence will also allow some of Serbia’s more expressive options further forward the freedom to flaunt their wares.
Little Known Fact: I’m a Slav For You
Interestingly, FIFA recognises Serbia as the sole successor to the famous Yugoslavian sides of the past. And yes, the break up of the Republic back in 1992, has since spawned seven recognised national football teams, but Serbia can, with a fair degree of clout, claim to have quite a prestigious footballing heritage. And who’s going to argue with them?
Yugoslavia can boast two fourth place finishes at World Cups and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics held in Rome in 1960 amongst their accolades. But perhaps Yugoslavian, and indeed Serbian, football’s greatest moment came in the Stadio San Nicola, Bari on the 29th May 1991. Red Star Belgrade, with a sumptuous, youthful midfield quartet of Prosinečki, Jugović, Mihajlović and Savićević became Kings of Europe. The latter three became synonymous with viewers of Gazzetta Football Italia of a Saturday morning in the 90s, or at least when Gazza hadn’t been out on a Friday night.
Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (3) Lost (0)
Having played the Serbs on five occasions now, since they launched their solo career back in 2006, we have yet to topple them, and in truth we haven’t really come close. Andy Keogh scrambled a draw with a last-minute equaliser in Croke Park in 2008, and scrambling to stay on terms has been the name of the game ever since with this lot. Their dominating performance over us in September put pay to any real hope of automatic qualification, and cued Martin O’Neill’s exit from…oh no, wait…
How will they go?
Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, Serbia certainly have the capability to spring a few surprises and should not be underestimated. Having beaten Germany in Port Elizabeth in their second group game in 2010, they went into the final round-robin game with Australia knowing that a draw would be suffice to see them through. They blew it. This Summer offers a chance of redemption for veterans of that day, the likes of Stojković in goal, and defensive stalwarts Kolarov and Ivanović, and whilst the Serbs have exciting talent in the likes of a rejuvenated Mitrović up front, the aforementioned Matić and new Spanish-born wonder kid Milinković-Savić, the aging legs could be exposed most acutely by the brilliant Brazilians. Expect tough, not-so-pretty encounters with the Swiss and the Costa Ricans.
Prediction: 3rd – just fancy the Swiss to pip them to qualification.