The Serbian football team landed in Lisbon yesterday as they prepare to do battle in a sold-out Estadio da Luz with Portugal to decide who gets a ticket to next year’s World Cup.
The top protagonists from Ireland’s qualification group go into this game tied at 17 points apiece, 11 points ahead of Stephen Kenny’s side, but Portugal’s advantage on goal difference means a draw is enough for them to top the group and qualify for next November’s finals in Qatar, with the runner-up going to a 12-team play-off.
The Serbians go into this game after a 4-0 friendly win over Qatar in Belgrade on Thursday night, all four goals coming in the second half as Dragan Stojković played a much-changed side to save his main men for tomorrow night’s game.
One player they will hope has a telling impact is 21-year-old Dusan Vlahovic, who has had a €70m price-tag placed on his head by his club Fiorentina as he continues to be the Serie A club’s star striker.
The Serbs, who have won four of their five games since their 2-2 draw with Portugal in March, are also set to have Ajax midfielder Dusan Tadic back in their line-up.
The Portuguese will be without defender Pepe, who got sent off in Dublin on Thursday and will be suspended, possibly opening the door for ex-West Ham man Jose Fonte to return to the squad.
Portugal manager Fernando Santos is convinced his side will get the result they need to qualify despite being held to a stalemate by the Irish.
“A draw or a 5-0 win (against Ireland) was the same thing, but of course I would rather win. It’s a positive result. We know that, at this moment, the Serbia team has to play in our stadium to win the game. They will play in a different way,” Santos told the Portuguese Football Federation’s official website.
“We had a lot of difficulty and we were never able to turn on the game. There was a lot of difficulty in dealing with a very aggressive, very physical opponent. We were never able to turn on the game and we had a chance, inside and out.
“When we couldn’t control the game, we switched the ball back, kicking forward against very tall players, who always won the ball, the second balls.
“In terms of defensive organisation, we always allow a lot of space. We had a hard time dealing with the game, the players tried. The Irish were always very fast and they diminished their ability to hold the ball. We could have done better.
“But I’m convinced we’re going to be at the World Cup.”