An intriguing Serbian side heads to South Africa as the trendy selection to do some serious damage to the main contenders at this year’s World Cup. Surprisingly, this is the first time the nation will enter a major international competition devoid of any internal issues. Serbia’s players can focus squarely on football this time, not having to worry about the usual political concerns that have ravaged the region in year’s past. Being placed in a favorable Group D alongside Germany, Australia, and injury-riddled Ghana, gives the Serbians hope for a realistic possibility of not only advancing past the initial group stages, but perhaps topping the group, setting themselves up nicely for a magical run in South Africa.
Serbia has endured a tumultuous history at the World Cup throughout the years. Often entering teams when they were known as Yugoslavia, or in 2006 when they encompassed Montenegro into their country. Germany 2006 however will be an experience the players will want to forget. Paired in a tough group against the Ivory Coast, Argentina, and the Netherlands, the Serbians succumbed to various internal pressures and bowed out all too easily, finishing an unacceptable 32nd place. This time however, the White Eagles of Serbia are at peace with their soccer preparations and will enter competition with the mindset of emerging victorious. Their best finish ever was in 1962 when they were Yugoslavia, reaching the semi-finals. A far cry from 32 years later in 1994 when they were banned from the tournament in the United States resulting from the harsh breakup of Yugoslavia. Serbia has clearly come a long way in carrying on the soccer traditions of the former Yugoslavia, and in South Africa the talented side will look to capture their first major trophy for their country.
The Serbians topped a tough European qualification group to punch their ticket to the World Cup. Matched against both France and Austria, Serbia topped the group while maintaining an impressive goal differential of fourteen. By comparison, France’s was only nine. The dominance during World Cup qualification made up for the Euro 2008 qualifying disappointment of two years earlier. Placed against both Poland and Portugal, the White Eagles failed to be among the top two sides in their group, and did not make it to the final tournament. This result was met with great anger throughout the country, proving that this time success is vital to the soccer-loving nation.
Leading up to their crucial opening fixture versus Ghana on June 13th, Serbia has been inconsistent in their preparations. Although they have looked impressive in both a 3-0 victory over Japan, and a 4-3 win against a strong Cameroon side, they appeared disinterested in a lackluster draw to Poland, and a stunning 1-0 defeat by tournament basement dwellers New Zealand. If these lapses in focus persist, Serbia won’t be fighting to get out of their group, they’ll be fighting simply not to avoid replicating their 2006 adventure.
Serbia will be coached by Radomir Antic, a man who has done wonders with the team since his arrival in August of 2008. He has instilled a tough, defensive mentality to the Serbian side, and the success of his 4-4-2 formation is contingent upon their lockdown defense. The two central defenders, Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic, and 21-year-old American, Neven Subotic will anchor what should be one of the most feared backlines in the tournament. Subotic switched allegiance from the Americans to his birth nation of Serbia at the persuasion of coach Antic, and the 6’4” defender will strike fear into attacking players throughout the tournament. However, despite their power at the back, Antic has always preferred an offensively minded team. In South Africa, expect the Serbs to utilize the supremely talented Milos Krasic, and goal-scoring machine Milan Jovanovic on the right and left flanks in the midfield. Captain Dejan Stankovic and Nenad Milijas supplement their wingers with great playmaking ability, as the Serbs typically play without a traditional holding midfielder. In the attack, the Serbs possess great size and strength with their main target man in 6’7” Nikola Zigic. He is incredibly strong in the air and will be counted upon to provide goals in South Africa.
The starting-11 of the Serbian side can rival that of anyone else’s in the field. They are truly that good, and are fully deserving of the pre-tournament hype they have been receiving. Although, recently questions have been raised about their suspect goaltending as a potential weakness. Keeper Vladimir Stjokovic has bounced around internationally and remains a puzzling choice by Antic for his starting goalie. Additionally, the White Eagles have often been too heavily reliant on their star wingers in the midfield, Krasic and Jovanovic. Others have to raise their game to match the likes of these great talents, namely Zigic up front, who despite being a physical specimen, must start capitalizing on his numerous chances. If their supporting players fail to play to their potential Serbia could really find difficulty with their Group D opponents.
Undoubtedly Serbia caught a break with key injuries to their group opponents in South Africa. With both Michael Ballack of Germany and Michael Essien of Ghana being hurt, Serbia should be able to capitalize on their absences. Although Germany is the top team in this group, Serbia should have a decisive edge in overall talent than its next two competitors in Australia and Ghana. They possess their most talented lineup in years, a starting-11 with little flaws, and a great coach who possesses a pedigree of winning at high levels. Expect the White Eagles to finish second in their group, advancing into a second-round match against a strong England side. Here I see the Serbs giving England all they can handle in a tough Round of 16 fixture, but ultimately bowing out to a superior side. Although they have a tough road, they are one of the more talented squads in South Africa and similar to their nation’s make-up, they surely won’t go down without a fight.
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