Serbian View: The Underdogs’ Challenge

Ahead of a crucial first test on the road to Russia, Serbian sports writer Miloš Marković has the lowdown from Belgrade, including a sense of disappointment that the hosts won’t get to see Robbie Keane one more time.

And so it begins.

Serbia open their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying account at home against the Euro 2016 participants Republic of Ireland hoping for a fresh start following a disastrous year which was marked by on-pitch violence, and poor team spirit. Disappointing showings in the Euro qualifiers have made Serbia supporters – the author of this article included – once again lose faith in their national set-up.

Having been pitted in Group D against the likes of Moldova, Georgia, Austria, Republic of Ireland and Wales, the Serbian national team is relishing the opportunity to finally get out of the shadow of big expectations and showcase the undisputed quality of its star-studded team.

A Clean Slate

Serbia are eager to put the disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying behind them and most notably forget all about the notorious match against Albania, which was abandoned after a drone carrying a Great Albania flag was flown into the Partizan Stadium, creating utter chaos on the pitch.

The Eagles – as they are commonly referred to – head into the new cycle with huge baggage behind them, the baggage everyone will hope had been left behind after the departure of former head coach Radovan Curcic and subsequent appointment of widely respected and internationally acknowledged tactician Slavoljub Muslin.

The man who managed the likes of Bordeaux, Lens, Metalurh Donetsk, Lokeren and FC Lokomotiv Moscow among others, was installed as Serbia national team manager following an spell at Standard Liege and is expected to make significant changes.

One of the first of those changes was bringing Southampton midfielder Dusan Tadic back into the squad and recalling – at the time Partizan starlet – Andrija Zivkovic as a clear statement that Muslin will not let anyone or anything stand in his way in doing what he reckons is best for the national team.

As one of the most exciting Serbia’s talents Andrija Zivkovic – now at Benfica – was at the time of Muslin’s appointment earlier in 2016 discarded from Partizan’s first team due to a refusal to sign the contract extension in a much publicised narrative that was aimed at discrediting the U-20 World Cup winner from 2015.

By putting his foot down right from the start, Slavoljub Muslin took a different approach to his predecessors – an approach characterised by team discipline, hard-work, mutual respect, self-belief and determination – in an effort to win back the hearts of the nation and get people to support the talented team as they try to grab their Russian visas.

Nothing but Respect for the Irish

Serbian people have a thing for all the countries which have gone through familiar problems as themselves throughout history. Oppressed by many with their national identity, threatened on numerous occasions, the two countries share much more than what initially meets the eye.

Monday’s visit will be Ireland’s second trip to Serbia and there are no doubts that both Martin O’Neill’s team and Ireland supporters alike will be given a warm welcome in Belgrade. After all, such was the case with Scottish and Welsh over the last few years during the visits of those nations deeply respected by the Serbian public.

The same thing cannot be said for the English though. They last visited Serbia in 2012 when the Three Lions U-21 team’s Euro 2013 qualifying 1-0 victory in the city of Krusevac was marred by racial abuse and attacks by missile-throwing Serbian fans, who ran on to the pitch with scuffs breaking out after Danny Rose kicked a football into the crowd, sparking the entire incident.

“A friendlier atmosphere is expected this time, and the Serbian fans had previously hoped they would get the chance to catch a glimpse of recently retired Irish legend Robbie Keane in competitive action.”

A sense of disappointment spread through when it was announced that the Oman friendly would be the LA Galaxy star’s last match for Ireland and that he would not be taking part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Serbian players share the same feelings of respect towards the Republic of Ireland team – respect enhanced by Ireland’s gigantic 1-0 win over Italy and by the Green Army fans that were arguably been the best thing that happened to the 2016 European Championship finals in France.

Palermo defender Slobodan Rajkovic has reminded that the Republic of Ireland is a quality side which plays simple, yet effective football as was on display during summer and that it would be best for Serbia to go out trying to put in a composed, aggressive display in order to grab a much needed triumph.

Hamburger SV winger Filip Kostic and Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic share the thoughts, but believe that individual quality is on Serbia’s side and that it could prove to be a determining factor in Monday’s match at Rajko Mitic Stadium.

May the Best Team Win

Serbia and Republic of Ireland have a long road ahead of them. With Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales as the Group D favourites, things are likely to go down between Eagles and the Boys in Green to decide who grabs the remaining slot among the eight best runners-up facing a two-legged playoff.

The opening match carries huge importance for both sides and can be a massive morale boost.

Slavoljub Muslin and Martin O’Neil face a couple of selection worries with Serbia’s Zoran Tosic still not fully fit and Ireland’s James McCarthy ruled out through a groin injury but an openly contested match is nevertheless expected between two sides eager to get their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaigns off to a flying start.

In the end, a biased conclusion from an Irish-loving Serbian football writer would come down to nothing more than a pious platitude – may the best team win.

Follow Miloš Marković on Twitter: @MiloseMarkovicu

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