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2018 World Cup preview: Serbia

Serbia v Georgia - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier

BELGRADE, SERBIA - OCTOBER 09: Adem Ljajic (L) and Nemanja Matic (R) of Serbia celebrate during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Serbia and Georgia at stadium Rajko Mitic on October 9, 2017 in Belgrade. (Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images)

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Getting to know Serbia: Serbia has played as an independent nation since 2006 after the split of Serbia & Montenegro, and will be playing in their second World Cup this summer. The Eagles flopped in 2010, finishing bottom of a group consisting of Germany, Ghana, and Australia. It can only go up from there for Serbia, and they have the squad to avenge that appearance.

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With a squad bursting with talent on paper, there’s still plenty of work to be done in a short amount of time. The recent managerial change has brought about a change in philosophy and squad makeup, and the race is on to get the players settled and the tactical approach streamlined.

Serbia is a potential darkhorse of this summer’s World Cup, but their floor is low and plenty is still to be determined for their future both immediate and long-term. Should they escape a tough Group E, the job Mladen Krstajic will have done to get them there will be a storyline of the tournament.

For more on Serbia’s World Cup adventure, click here.

What group are they in? Group E alongside Brazil, Switzerland, and Costa Rica. There will be a hotly contested battle for the second spot in the knockout stages alongside Brazil, with no true weak squad. Serbia finishes its group stage schedule with Brazil, so they will need to do serious work against the other two teams to avoid needing a result against the South American powerhouse.

Game schedule – Group E

Sunday, June 17: Costa Rica v Serbia, Samara 8am, ET
Friday, June 22: Serbia v Switzerland, Kaliningrad 2pm, ET
Wednesday, June 27: Serbia v Brazil, Moscow 2pm, ET

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1)Check out the 23-man squad list in full
—– Stojkovic —–

— Rukavinka — Ivanovic — Milenkovic — Kolarov —

— Matic — Milivojevic —

— Tadic — Milinkovic-Savic — Ljajic —

— Mitrovic —

Star player: Nemanja Matic is one of the few players who has actually continued to grow at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho. Coming over from Chelsea, Matic has blossomed into one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders who also occasionally crops up in dangerous attacking positions. Matic hasn’t fully translated that success over to his national team performances just yet, but on paper he’s the best player Serbia has.

Manager: Mladen Krstajić took over just this past October, and has been racing against the clock to get this team ready for the World Cup. Krstajić has made several significant changes to the squad, most notably bringing in divisive yet talented midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He also brought back Torino winger Adem Ljajic who was expelled from the squad by former manager Sinisa Mihajlovic. There is a lot on the line for Krstajić in this World Cup, as a failure to impress could see his squad selection an easy scapegoat even if it’s not the root cause of their disappointment.

Secret weapon: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is one of the most highly-rated up-and-coming players in the world. Despite just three international caps for Serbia, the 23-year-old is primed as one of the chic picks for breakout player at the competition. He’s a do-it-all attacking midfielder who can prove a force when defending as well, causing teams like Manchester United, Juventus, and Arsenal to line up for his services.

For Lazio last season, Milinkovic-Savic scored 12 goals and four assists, an attacking force by nature but also a player who can do the dirty work. Against RB Leipzig in the Europa League quarterfinals, SMS completed three tackles, grabbed three interceptions, won 4/7 aerial duels, and cleared the ball three times in a 4-2 home win.

The biggest problem? Experience. With just 208 international minutes to his name - 45 of which have come at the same time as Matic in midfield - Milinkovic-Savic will have to learn to play with his teammates on the fly, relying mostly on training rather than instincts. This doesn’t matter to to Kristajic, who said SMS “is bound to become the backbone of this squad.”

The other problem? His temper. Milinkovic-Savic is known for losing his head on occasion which can affect his performance, although it has not translated into a true discipline problem just yet. He can sometimes lose focus which results in bad giveaways in dangerous positions. Serbia will need him to avoid these lapses in judgement if they are to compete in a tough group.

Prediction: Serbia can defend, the question will be can they put it all together and score enough goals to beat good teams in their group. They bagged 20 in UEFA qualifying on their way to qualify automatically, but their group of Ireland, Wales, Austria, Georgia, and Moldova was less than impressive. The three teams in their World Cup group are arguably all better than anything they faced in qualification.

The key will be feeding Aleksandar Mitrovic in front of goal, who is on a stunning run of form since joining Fulham in January. If they can keep him involved, and ageless defender Branislav Ivanovic can keep things glued up at the back, Serbia could challenge for a knockout stage spot, but the odds are against them making it through the group stage. The group is just too good.

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