Will the Eagles Soar in Russia, or Will Serbia Sink at the World Cup?

Will the Eagles Soar in Russia, or Will Serbia Sink at the World Cup?

Manuel Veth –

It is often said that in most managerial jobs, getting results is the primary consideration, but as head coach of the Serbian national team, even that isn’t enough, it seems. Slavoljub Muslin found that out after what can only be described as an excellent World Cup qualifying campaign if focusing attention purely on the results achieved by his team. Serbia finished top of their group, above very robust and tricky opponents, and lost only one of their ten encounters along the way. In truth, the football on display might not have been of the most entertaining variety, but it was undoubtedly effective. It’s also fair to say that even amidst accusations of being too defensive, the tactical approach used followed trends that have increased European football in recent years.

Serbia were worried to lose the likes of Sergej Milinković-Savić to other nations. (Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images )

Serbia were worried to lose the likes of Sergej Milinković-Savić to other nations. (Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images )

Arguably the biggest rift caused between Muslin and his employer, FSS president Slavisa Kokeza, was a managerial preference for utilising tried and tested senior players, who best fit his tactical plans, rather than shape tactical plans to accommodate some of the many outstanding young Serbian talents; all awaiting their opportunities with the senior national side. The FSS feared to lose such talents to other nations, which in the case of Spanish-born Lazio star, Sergej Milinković-Savić, was considered a very real possibility.

Muslin was Ousted After World Cup Qualification

In the end, Muslin was ousted from his position. Assistant coach Mladen Krstajić stepped into the breach, initially as interim coach while the FSS sounded out other candidates, before being handed the post on a more permanent basis; or at least until the end of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. In the two friendly matches with Krstajić at the helm in November, against China and South Korea, he immediately brought Milinković-Savić and a host of other uncapped players into the fold; undoubtedly at the behest of Kozeka and the FSS.

Amidst such upheaval and changes, trying to predict how Serbia will fare at the World Cup becomes increasingly difficult. As of January 10, 2018, Betway have odds of 150/1 for Serbia to win the tournament; albeit ones who might still have a surprise or two up their sleeves. However, even progressing from Group E will be a fearsome challenge, having been drawn alongside Costa Rica, Switzerland, and one of the tournament favourites in the shape of Brazil.

Nevertheless, the beauty of football is that shock results and the unexpected can often occur, pre-tournament favourites can sometimes underperform, and underdogs can also claim a mighty scalp or two. We only need to look back at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where reigning champions Spain stuttered and failed to reach the knock-out stages; or England and Italy in the same group, dismally finishing beneath Costa Rica and Uruguay.

As such, there’s entirely no reason why Serbia shouldn’t head to Russia in high spirits, because one thing they certainly don’t lack, is an abundance of talent and potential amongst the exciting pool of players Krstajić can choose from when he decides upon his final squad list. The outstanding form of 22-year-old Milinković-Savić with Lazio has had Italian football experts running out of superlatives, Marko Grujić is breaking into the first team at Liverpool, while Nemanja Maksimović is finally starting to get games at Valencia in LaLiga, and Miloš Veljković continues to shine at Werder Bremen. Between the posts, the positive form of Marko Dmitrović with Eibar could provide a serious goalkeeping challenge for Vladimir Stojković in goal.

Krstajić can Count on a Walth of Seasoned Experience

Along with the quality options amongst the more youthful faces, Krstajić can also count on a wealth of seasoned experience as the core of his side. Nemanja Matić has excelled at Manchester United, Luka Milivojević has been a midfield revelation for Crystal Palace, while Adem Ljajić appears to be back at his best with Torino in Serie A. Of course, there’s also the hugely experienced defensive trio of captain Branislav Ivanović, Antonio Rukavina, and Ivan Obradović; amongst other senior players who have already proven themselves at international level for their country.

World Cup - Players like Villarreal's Antonio Rukavina will be key to Serbia's World Cup success. (Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images)

Players like Villarreal’s Antonio Rukavina will be key to Serbia’s World Cup success. (Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images)

Indeed, the toughest decisions facing Krstajić might be who he leaves out of the final squad, before Serbia settle into their World Cup base at the coastal town of Svetlogorsk, near Kaliningrad, just ahead of the tournament. Much could depend on what tactical ideas he plans to deploy during the group stage in Russia. It would be quite easy to utilise the Muslin-esque defensive approach, given how solidly and successfully the 3-4-3 system of the previous manager worked in qualifying, however, Serbia also have plenty of players with exciting attacking ability and flair, who could really make life difficult for opponents, if they’re unshackled and allowed to do so.

Serbia are undoubtedly in one of the most difficult FIFA World Cup groups, but if Krstajić can maximise the genuine potential of the talent available to him, and within more flexible tactical ideas; then there’s every chance this underdog could have enough bite to edge its way to the knockout stages of the tournament.

Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and social media editor at Bundesliga.com. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada.  Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.