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Premier class of Serbs


DONCASTER, Barnsley, Yeovil and Huddersfield.

That is the lot, in terms of opposition and, ahem, glamour trips for almost half of the players in the Ireland squad for tonight's game against Serbia – 11 members of Ireland's 25-man squad earn their crust in the English Championship.

Talk in the away team's dressing room has a different note, where winning leagues and trying for the Champions League is more relevant. Serbia do not have the touch of glamour attached to nations like Spain or Portugal right now and, back home in Belgrade, there is a mournful period of self-examination following a poor performance in the qualifiers for the World Cup, finishing third in their group, three painful points behind neighbours Croatia.


Serbia finished that campaign strongly, beating Wales (3-0) and Macedonia (5-1) but sadly, that was preceded by a dismal run of three defeats in four games, including a morale-sapping loss away to Croatia.

But the Serbian side that will take to the field in Dublin 4 tonight will have more than a touch of glamour.

English-based players Aleksandar Kolarov, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic can engage in banter about which of them will win the Premier League title this season. Adem Ljajic (Roma) and defender Nenad Tomovic (Fiorentina) are likely to secure European football with their clubs next season as will Portugal's champions-elect Benfica and their three Serbian stars.

The fact that the Serbian FA put forward two Premier League regulars – Ivanovic and Kolarov – to face the media in Dublin yesterday indicates that, while Serbia will be absent from Brazil 2014 like Ireland, they have class and choice in their squad.

But is it not difficult for players like Ivanovic to switch off from the race for England's title to play in a midweek friendly against Ireland? Not at all, says the defender.

"We don't talk a lot about how things are at our clubs and who will win," says Ivanovic of that battle between the clubs under Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho.

"We don't spend time doing that, we are here to help our national team, we have to switch off from that, switch on and focus on the national team," added Kolarov.

It's been a difficult time to be a Serbian footballer, but the fact that the star names turned up in Dublin is a sign that this group want to right the wrongs of recent times.

"I am a professional and this is my job. For me, it's always a pleasure to play for my national team. The next game is always the most important and, now, my focus is on the game (tonight)," says Ivanovic, one of the few survivors from the Serbia team which held Ireland to a 1-1 draw in Dublin in 2008.

"I am happy at the moment, but I tend to look forward, not back. I am always thinking about the future and the next game, you have to be focused. After my career is over and it's all stopped, I will have time to think about any success I have had.

"Right now, things are going well for us as a team," he says of Chelsea.

"We have improved a lot since the start of the season, we look like a strong team and we have the potential to build an amazing team.

"Chelsea and Manchester City are fighting for the title, but so are two other teams, and it will be very interesting. We will just try to stay on top of our game and do our best for our clubs," added Ivanovic.

Names of the Irish players may not roll off the tongue in Belgrade, just as Nemanja Gudelj and Ljubomir Fejsa are not household names in Finglas. Yet there is some awareness of Ireland, with Ivanovic being acquainted with Shane Long who has scored against him in the Premier League this season, for West Brom in a 2-2 draw.


"We have a lot of respect for your team. In the past, Ireland had great players but at this moment you have a really strong team, all of your players are with big clubs in England and they are important players," says the Chelsea man.

"Tonight is a massive challenge for us and a difficult game, but this is what we need, a great opponent in a great stadium and a chance to improve our game.

"I have played a lot of games against Irish players and all of your guys are tough guys, difficult to play against and they always have a special feeling, a special motivation."

One particular type of motivation has been an issue for the Serbian side in the past, as classy Roma midfielder Adem Ljajic is back in the squad for the first time in almost two years. The player was previously dropped by former coach Sinisa Mihajlovic – notorious for his political views – for refusing to sing the national anthem.

A fresh start for Ljajic and a fresh start for Serbia.

They spoiled the party for Giovanni Trapattoni, holding his Ireland side to a 1-1 draw in Dublin in the Italian's first game. Now, they seek to do the same to Martin O'Neill, supported by that backbone of Premier League class.