Ireland’s bid to qualify for a fourth World Cup begins on Monday night with a difficult qualifier away to Serbia in Belgrade. The Euro 2016 qualifying campaign was particularly poor for Serbia, as they finished 4th in their group on a total of four points and cut adrift of Portugal, Albania and Denmark. However, it was their infamous home game against Albania that proved to be costly, with Albania awarded a 3-0 win and Serbia deducted three points.
The Serbia squad for Monday’s fixture includes a combination of experienced heads and younger emerging players, a number of whom starred in the 2015 U20 World Cup which Serbia won. Crucially, Aleksander Kolarov of Man City and Nemanja Matic of Chelsea are both suspended for the Ireland game, whilst Aleksandar Mitrović has played less than half a game of football this season with Newcastle. Fans of the Premier League will be familiar Shane Long’s Southampton teammate, Dušan Tadić, Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanović and former Man City defender Matija Nastasić.
In recent fixtures, Serbia have played with variations of 3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations. Their defence is likely to include Ivanović, Nastasić and Slobodan Rajković who currently plays with Palermo. Ljubomir Fejsa (Benfica) is the most likely candidate for the holding role in midfield, whilst the creative midfield spark is likely to be provided by Tadić, alongside Filip Kostic (Hamburg) and Lazar Marković (currently on loan from Liverpool to Sporting Lisbon). Despite an apparent lack of match fitness, Mitrović is likely to lead the line for Serbia.
There’s no doubting the quality available to Serbia and a key question is whether their big-name players will finally start to produce the goods for the national team. In recent years, Serbia’s senior team has appeared almost disinterested, but there is a view that the blend of youth and experience may finally be right to allow them deliver on some of their underage success during this qualifying campaign. In that sense, Ireland are perhaps fortunate to be playing this fixture at a time when Serbia are missing some key players. If a draw can be secured, it may well be a point more than either Wales or Austria pick up on their respective trips to Belgrade.
Author: Alan Hannify