Although Serbia in its various guises has been a bastion of football in Eastern Europe over the years, the appointment of Radomir Antic in 2008 has seen the national team improve at an unprecedented rate, going from strength to strength to become a potential dark horses for this summer’s World Cup.
Having been drawn in a difficult qualifying group alongside strong opposition in the shape of France, Romania and Austria, Serbia played some magnificent football to finish top of Group 7, winning all but three of their games to end the campaign a point clear of the French. After impressive away wins over Austria and Romania and a satisfying draw against Raymond Domenech’s side in Belgrade, Antic’s men sealed qualification with a round of games to spare, an emphatic 5-0 thumping of the Romanian’s booking the White Eagles’ place in South Africa.
With a squad rich in talent and in possession of an ideal blend of youth and experience, Antic has got his team playing a well-balanced 4-4-2 system, using a consistently excellent defence – Serbia conceded just eight goals in their 10 qualifying games – as the basis for what is an efficient and workmanlike unit. Although it is Nemanja Vidic who often steals the limelight for obvious reasons, Antic has at his disposal several defenders who have spent time at some of Europe’s biggest clubs, experienced and intelligent players who clearly relish the art of defending.
Despite a recent injury to Ivica Dragutinovic which will rule the Sevilla man out of the World Cup, Antic has reliable back-up in the shape of Alexsandar Lukovic and Neven Subotic, centre-halves who have proved themselves more than capable of playing at the top level. By maximising the talents of his defenders and building from the back, Antic has consciously fashioned the perfect foundation upon which he has constructed a highly competent and confident side over the last two years.
In middle the captain, Inter’s Dejan Stankovic, knits things together with his superb range of passing whilst aiding his central midfield partner – likely to be Nenad Milijas of Wolverhampton Wanderers – in pressing the opposition and disarming attacks in their early stages. CSKA Moscow’s Milos Krasic and Milan Jovanovic of Standard Liege (although soon to join Liverpool) were deployed on the right and left flanks respectively during qualifying, both slight and fast players with superb dribbling ability who will cause opposition defences serious headaches in June.
In attack Antic has shown a preference for the partnership of Valencia’s Nikola Zigic and Marko Pantelic of Ajax, the former an extremely tall and strong target man, the latter an intelligent and deft finisher. However, despite the pairing’s obvious qualities and the way in which they complement one another, Zigic and Pantelic scored just four goals between them in qualifying, something which will surely concern Serbia’s experienced Coach. Furthermore, Danko Lazovic, the talented Zenit St Petersburg striker, has recently picked up an injury which will rule him out for at least a month, casting doubt over whether he will be able to travel to South Africa and leaving Serbia possibly a little short in the striking department.
Despite being drawn in arguably the toughest World Cup group with Germany, Australia and Ghana, the Serbians should be confident in their ability to handle the pressure the tournament will undoubtedly bring and progress through to the last 16 where they would probably face England. Antic’s side could well be one of the surprise packages this summer.
Probable starting XI: Stojkovic (Wigan Athletic); Ivanovic (Chelsea), Vidic (Manchester United), Lukovic (Udinese), Obradovic (Real Zaragoza); Krasic (CSKA Moscow), Milijas (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Stankovic (Internazionale), Jovanovic (Standard Liege); Zigic (Valencia), Pantelic (Ajax)
The Road to South Africa: 1st place in UEFA Group 7
World Ranking: 16th