Technically 2010 is Serbia’s first time at the World Cup. New country, new beginnings? Well sort of. We can still use the past to help understand what may happen in the future, as Jonathan Wilson so brilliantly alludes to in Behind The Curtain:
”[Serbia:] self-doubt suppressing imagination and bringing to the surface the cynicism that has always underlain the technical excellence. Self-doubt, in fact, is the defining characteristic of Serbian football: they are Europe’s most consistent chokers.”
It is a tag that has been well earned. Admittedly, as part of the former Yugoslavia, there was the 1960 Olympic triumph followed in 1991 by Red Star Belgrade lifting the European Cup. However, these achievements come amidst three Olympic silver medals, two European Championship final defeats and two World Cup semi-final defeats. Throw in a European final defeat each for both Partizan and Red Star and, yes, Serbia arrive in South Africa with a long history of unfulfilled promise.
Three of the current squad remain from last time around in 2006 where the Serbs formed the dominant part of the Serbia & Montenegro side. Qualification had gone remarkably well as they remained unbeaten, topping a group that included Spain. That outfit bowed out of the World Cup at the group stage losing all three games, most famously being on the receiving end of the biggest beating, and the best goal, of the tournament. Amid claims of squad disharmony, a World Cup which they had every right to go into with confidence and belief (some even called them dark horses) had ended in abject failure.
So what about this time around? Well, just like four years ago, the Serbians enter the tournament on the back of an impressive qualifying campaign. On this occasion, France were beaten into second place. A 5-0 home victory over Romania was perhaps the highlight as Raddy Antic’s side showcased the variety of different threats they can offer.
The final two goals that night came courtesy of Milan Jovanovic operating from the left-wing. Still in the Belgian Jupiter League at the age of 29, Jovanovic could be considered something of a late developer. However, with a move to Liverpool now sealed, there is every reason to think big things lie ahead for him and this summer could be the moment he announces himself on the world stage. On the opposite flank, Milos Krasic is many people’s tip to be the breakthrough star of the tournament. The £15m rated talent is attracting interest from Europe’s finest and it is not just his appearance that sees him compared to the former Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved – he has good work-rate, is comfortable with both feet and is capable of playing anywhere across the midfield.
In the centre of midfield, Serbia are blessed with an interesting blend. The skipper Dejan Stankovic, fresh from the treble with Inter, will provide a sound platform for Serbia to play from, working in tandem with the more mercurial talents of the left-footed Nenad Milijas. Milijas has enjoyed contrasting fortunes following an underwhelming first season in English football with Wolves. However, their neat and tidy partnership at the heart of midfield was a key element of a successful campaign.
Up front, newly signed 6′ 8” Birmingham forward Nikola Zigic will, as ever, partner Marko Pantelic in the Serbian forward line. Once again, Antic has complementary styles at his disposal with Zigic’s hold up play and aerial threat combining with Pantelic’s runs in behind the defence. The pair managed only 4 goals in qualifying though, so despite packing a goal threat from midfield, there will be concerns about a lack of firepower.
In defence, Serbia can count upon two men who need no introduction as Nemanja Vidic and Branko Ivanovic have both featured in recent Premiership Team of the Season XI’s. They will join Lukovic and the highly-rated young Lazio left-back Kolarov in playing in front of Stojkovic, meaning Serbia will most likely line up as follows:
As you can see, it is a fairly balanced 4-4-2 that has seen them through qualifying. There was a shift to 4-5-1 for the home draw against France but if Zigic & Pantelic are both fit then they are likely to stick to this shape through the group games at least. This could be their biggest weakness as well as their great strength as they face, in order, Ghana, Germany and Australia. All three opponents could line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation that would threaten to dominate Serbia in the middle of the park. Stankovic is clearly an astute and vastly experienced footballer but alongside him Milijas is no Esteban Cambiasso so protection for the back four will be a concern.
Injuries to Michaels Ballack & Essien mean their major group rivals will both enter the tournament without their inspirational leaders, while Australia appear unimpressive. It is all there for Serbia to deliver on the big stage. And yet, predictably, the cracks have started to show – a 1-0 defeat to New Zealand in the warm-up games is bound to set alarm bells ringing. Time will tell whether this is to be a beautiful new dawn for Serbian football… or just another tale of woe from ‘Europe’s most consistent chokers’.
Adam Bate – Ghostgoal