We’re under 50 days until the big kickoff in Russia this summer, so heads are beginning to turn to the World Cup, with titles being wrapped ahead of time in the majority of Europe’s major leagues.
Now is a good time to break down whether any nations are being undervalued in the odds, and following on from last week’s assessment of Morocco, there are still a number of squads that aren’t to be underestimated. That much is true of Serbia, who will be confident of escaping the group stages despite being drawn alongside Brazil in Group E.
That said, the Eagles approach the tournament in somewhat unusual circumstances following the sacking of the man who led them through qualifying, Slavoljub Muslin. It’s been a mixed bag from replacement Mladen Krstajic in four friendlies since stepping up from a coaching role, and his appointment is certainly a gamble, given that his first competitive match as a manager will come at a World Cup — talk about a baptism of fire!
It was also a risk for the rookie boss to strip Branislav Ivanovic — who is about to set the record for most appearances with Serbia this summer — of the captaincy just months before the main event. The equally experienced Aleksandar Kolarov is his replacement, with Nemanja Matic (pictured above) set to serve as his deputy.
The fact that Serbia boast a trio of players who have won the Premier League — among numerous other titles — highlights that if they can settle any off-field disputes, the Orlovi have enough quality to cause real problems of their own. Thanks to an impressive blend of experience and youth, not to mention brains and brawn, Serbia have the look of an unenviable opponent — even for Neymar and company.
Having qualified from a group that included three teams that reached Euro 2016 — a feat they themselves couldn’t manage — Serbia may have been fortunate not to be drawn against a big hitter, but didn’t really have any free ones in that regard like so many other teams. Ireland, Wales and Austria all fell by the wayside, and one wouldn’t bet against Switzerland and Costa Rica doing the same in June.
While the latter proved four years ago that their presence shouldn’t be taken for granted, it’s the Swiss who are favorites to finish runners-up to the Selecao in Group E. However, too much credit has been thrust their way in the FIFA rankings and the odds. The Swiss, even though they had a relatively easy qualifying schedule, narrowly beat Northern Ireland in a playoff by scoring on a penalty that shouldn’t have been awarded. All in all, Vladimir Petkovic’s side haven’t really improved in recent years, while the same couldn’t be said of this Serbian squad.
Meet the Eagles
The Serbs are very strong in the middle of the park, as their midfield is anchored by Matic and Crystal Palace captain Luka Milivojevic. The latter has enjoyed a breakout season and is strong over dead balls, and could be the player whom this side builds around.
The fact that Serbia haven’t really tapped into the considerable talents of Lazio’s man-mountain, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, is somewhat baffling. The 23-year-old has been a star in Serie A for the better part of two years, and he could help to forge one of the most imposing and impressive midfield trios this summer. Milinkovic-Savic could be the link man between the physical backline and the creative forces up front like Torino’s Adem Ljajic, Southampton’s Dusan Tadic and the versatile Andrija Zivkovic of Benfica. The latter is an excellent little player on the ball and could be one to watch in Russia with regard to catching the eye ahead of a big-money move for next season.
We’ve not yet touched upon a crucial cog in any successful international side, particularly in major tournaments when the margins are often so fine. Any team hoping to go deep needs a goal scorer, and in Aleksandar Mitrovic, Serbia have one that is bang-on in form and crucially very fresh with regard to his fitness.
Mitrovic was hardly given a look at Newcastle in the first half of the season under Rafael Benitez but has been outstanding since a loan move to Fulham in January, firing the Cottagers into contention for automatic promotion to the Premier League. The powerful and unpredictable front man has 11 goals in 13 Championship starts and scored crucial goals in qualifying for the World Cup, too. A nightmare for defenders to face, Mitrovic will also be keen to impress potential suitors and is more than capable of match-winning moments.
Not An Easy Road
If they play to their potential, there’s little doubt in my mind that Serbia (+650 to win Group E, +100 to advance) have the second-strongest squad in Group E. The issue that they face is that should they finish as runners-up to outstanding favorites Brazil, a meeting with Germany will likely await.
They won’t be an easy opponent for either, but odds on the round of 16 being the Serbs’ most likely stage of elimination are worth exploring, as that bet may offer better value than a bet on reaching that stage in the first place.
Top photo: Serbia’s Nemanja Matic in action for the national team.