MX23RW : Wednesday, July 18 03:16:34

World Cup preview: Serbia

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews Serbia's chances as they return to the tournament after missing out four years ago.

Serbia will return to the World Cup in Russia this summer after failing to qualify four years ago, still looking to reach the knockout rounds for the first time under their own flag.

Considered by FIFA to be the successor to Yugoslavia, Serbia therefore have a richer history than their fellow Balkan nations, but their last two appearances at the tournament have ended in disappointment.

The Serbia team line up before their friendly game with Bolivia on June 9, 2018© Reuters

Expectations will be higher this time around after earning automatic qualification ahead of the likes of Republic of Ireland and Wales, and it is an experienced Serbia squad which will travel to Russia.

Here, Sports Mole assesses the Eagles' chances of success at the 2018 World Cup.


GROUP

Group E is one of the more intriguing sections at this summer's World Cup, with Serbia having been drawn alongside Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica.

World Cup Group E

Brazil and Switzerland will be the favourites to claim the top two spots, but Costa Rica upset the odds by winning their group of death in Brazil four years ago and Serbia will fancy their chances of pushing for at least second place too.

If they are to achieve that then victory over Costa Rica in their opening match may be imperative, and a win over Switzerland in Kaliningrad could even send them into their final outing against group favourites Brazil with their place in the knockout rounds already sewn up.

SERBIA FIXTURES

June 17: Costa Rica vs. Serbia (1pm, Cosmos Arena, Samara)
June 22: Serbia vs. Switzerland (7pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)
June 27: Serbia vs. Brazil (7pm, Otkritie Arena, Moscow)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Serbia's qualifying group was by no means the most difficult, but it contained four teams who were fairly evenly matched which, with only one automatic spot available, made things particularly interesting.

There was home nation interest in the shape of Republic of Ireland and Wales, but they ultimately finished second and third respectively as Serbia wrapped up top spot on the final day of qualifying.

Serbia players celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Defeat to Austria in their penultimate Group D match - having gone through the opening eight games unbeaten - left Serbia needing a victory over Georgia on the final day to guarantee their place at the World Cup.

Wales and Republic of Ireland were also in the mix in a three-way battle which went down to the wire, but Aleksandar Prijovic's goal against Georgia kept things in Serbia's hands as they finished two points clear at the top of the standings.


RECENT FORM

Since topping a competitive qualifying group, Serbia have played six friendly matches and won exactly half of them. The most recent of those was a comfortable 5-1 victory over Bolivia in a match that saw Aleksandar Mitrovic bag a hat-trick.

The Eagles have noticeably avoided heavyweight nations over the past few years, though, which is not ideal in a World Cup group that contains sides ranked second (Brazil) and sixth (Switzerland).

Serbia's players celebrate scoring in the international friendly against Bolivia on June 9, 2018© Reuters

Thrashing Bolivia was a good way for Krstajic's men to build some confidence, particularly on the back of losing 1-0 to World Cup absentees Chile in their only other summer fixture to date.

Serbia have at least had preparation of facing sides from the Americas over the past fortnight, and now they must put that to good use against Brazil and Costa Rica.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade), Predrag Rajkovic (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrovic (Eibar).

Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (AS Roma), Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St. Petersburg), Dusko Tosic (Guangzhou R&F), Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), Milan Rodic (Red Star Belgrade), Uros Spajic (Krasnodar), Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina).

Midfielders: Nemanja Matic (Manchester United), Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Adem Ljajic (Torino), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Filip Kostic (Hamburg SV), Andrija Zivkovic (Benfica), Nemanja Radonjic (Red Star Belgrade).

Strikers: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United), Aleksandar Prijovic (PAOK Salonika), Luka Jovic (Benfica).


STAR PLAYER - Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

Serbia's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in training ahead of the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Serbia so often impress in tournaments at age-grade level and now the hope is that some of the heroes of the past can step up and fire the senior side to glory.

Winning the World Cup may be out of the question, but progressing out of a group in which second place is up for grabs is an attainable target, and in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic the Serbians boast one of the most exciting talents anywhere on the planet.

Milinkovic-Savic has become a regular in the gossip columns thanks to his impressive displays for Lazio, playing a direct part in 15 Serie A goals this term to earn links with Manchester United among others.

Whether the 23-year-old is worth the near-£100m valuation he has been given is another matter entirely, but should he live up to his billing in Russia a big-money move seems certain to finally go through.

Controlling his temperament has been a key part of his development and, having been restored to the side under Krstajic, the platform is there for the relatively-inexperienced attacker to prove himself on the world stage.


MANAGER - Mladen Krstajic

Serbia manager Mladen Krstajic on March 23, 2018© Reuters

Mladen Krstajic has not had as long as many other managers to prepare his team for this summer's World Cup, having only been appointed on a permanent basis in December.

The 44-year-old succeeded Slavoljub Muslin as head coach, initially as caretaker in October before being handed the reins until the World Cup, having previously served on the sacked manager's coaching staff.

The role is Krstajic's first as a manager, but he was named as director of football at former club Partizan Belgrade upon his retirement in 2011 and has international experience from his playing days.

Indeed, the former defender won 59 caps for his country between 1999 and 2008, including representing Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Fourth place (1930, 1962)

Serbia's players celebrate during their 2010 World Cup win over Germany© Reuters

Inheriting the history of Yugoslavia following the breakup of that country means that Serbia have had a number of different guises down the years - from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1930 right the way through to their current identity.

The best footballing years came as part of Yugoslavia, though, finishing fourth in the first ever World Cup in 1930 before repeating that finish in 1962 - when they beat Uruguay, Colombia and West Germany along the way.

Indeed, Yugoslavia qualified for four World Cups in a row from 1950 to 1962, but they have reached just six of the following 13 prior to this summer's edition.

Serbia's only taste of the World Cup as their own nation came in South Africa eight years ago when they finished bottom of Group D, although they did pick up a memorable victory over Germany along the way.

There was an appearance at the 2006 World Cup under the banner of Serbia and Montenegro too, but that was an even less successful campaign as they were beaten by Argentina, Netherlands and Ivory Coast to once again finish bottom of the group.

In all of their guises Serbia have appeared in 43 World Cup matches with 17 wins, eight draws, 18 defeats, 64 goals scored and 59 conceded.


PREDICTION

Serbia are ranked lower than any other team in Group E and so will be favourites to finish bottom, but we're backing them to scrape through ahead of Costa Rica and Switzerland on goal difference.

However, should they achieve that then they will most likely face Germany in the last 16, which would be a huge challenge to overcome.

VERDICT: Last 16

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How far will Serbia go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
25.0%
Last 16
37.5%
Quarter-finals
12.5%
Semi-finals
12.5%
Runners-up
0.0%
Winners
12.5%
Aleksandar Mitrovic in action during the Championship game between Fulham and Sheffield United on March 6, 2018
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