Wednesday 23 May 2018

Classy Matic display puts Serbia in control

Nemanja Matic celebrates with some of his Serbia team-mates at the end of the match. Photo: CLODAGH KILCOYNE / REUTERS
Nemanja Matic celebrates with some of his Serbia team-mates at the end of the match. Photo: CLODAGH KILCOYNE / REUTERS
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Almost a month ago to the day, Jose Mourinho sat deep in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium and described Nemanja Matic as a "genius".

The Manchester United manager had just watched his new £40m signing effortlessly glide through his debut during a pre-season friendly.

"He thinks football," Mourinho told us.

Matic is a rare breed in the modern game and while words like 'genius' are often too easily bandied about, the Serbian powerhouse midfielder has the kind of football intelligence that makes him stand out from the rest.

Sitting in front of the back four is a thankless task but Matic does it brilliantly and more. His power and dynamism not only allows him to break up play but his range of passing puts his team on the front foot in the blink of an eye.

On Monday, the 29-year-old spoke about how he modelled his game on Roy Keane and on last night's evidence, it was easy to see the kind of traits that he has picked up from the Ireland assistant manager.

Keane was never the quickest but his ability to stay one step ahead of those around him by reading the game, allowed him to dominate opponents.

Matic might not be of Keane's class but he has the potential to fill the void that hasn't been replaced since his idol left Old Trafford 12 years ago.

With Serbia, Matic is afforded that bit more freedom than he is under Mourinho's rigid system and against Ireland, he demonstrated both sides of his game.

But for a terrific Shane Duffy block in the second minute, Matic would have opened the scoring for Serbia. The timing of his run to arrive on the edge of the box mirrored an art that Keane perfected throughout his career.

Three minutes later, he shrugged Wes Hoolahan off the ball like a rag doll but Matic had his hands full all evening with Ireland's little magician.

At 6ft 4in, Matic is an obvious threat at set-pieces but crucially, he can be relied upon to get in the opposition box and then make up the ground in reverse as well.

Serbia looked to hit their big man at set-pieces and although he didn't have much joy, Ireland's counter-attacking threat was snuffed out by Matic's relentless desire to get back and help out his defence.


Close to the quarter-hour mark, he was briefly caught out of position but the speed at which he recovered to cut out David Meyler's clever pass to the feet of Shane Long rendered his slight error redundant.

It's a hallmark of all great players but mistakes in Matic's game are few and far between, particularly because he continuously does the simple thing and does it well.

As Ireland grew in confidence, Serbia never panicked and on 55 minutes when they struck for the killer blow, it was no surprise to see who was at the heart of it.

Matic shut down another potential Ireland break by playing the neatest header to Dusan Tadic wide on the right flank.

The Southampton attacker then weaved his magic and engineered Aleksandar Kolarov's cracking winner that leaves Serbia on the brink of qualifying for their first major tournament since the 2010 World Cup.

Matic's intervention may have looked simple, but yet again it was his awareness that allowed him to be in the right place at the right time. Then having got himself in the correct position, his quality on the ball created the opening for Tadic.

It was a snapshot of what Matic is all about. While it might have went unnoticed, his team-mates ran to him in the celebrations that followed to acknowledge what was a brilliantly intelligent piece of play.

Down to 10 men for the final 22 minutes, Matic's role became even more important and even though his manager won't have thanked him for pulling out of a 50/50 challenge with James McClean on the halfway line, he continued to nullify Ireland's threat, this time as part of the back three.

Serbia essentially finished the game with nine men after Jagos Vokovic tweaked a hamstring but Matic berated him when he went off the field for medical attention at such a crucial time with his side's backs against the wall.

A born winner who right now is at the peak of his powers. Maybe Mourinho was right after all.

Irish Independent

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