The Serbian FA put up a video from a training session earlier this week at their base outside Belgrade, the starring role falling to manager Dragan Stojkovic, who juggled a ball with the grace and ease which would put most modern-day players to shame.
The 55-year-old Stojkovic still has pure class in his boots, but everywhere he looked on that training pitch, as he prepared for tonight’s duel with Ireland, quality also sparkled.
The Serbia team which he has inherited has some players who don’t spark instant recognition in this Anglo-centric part of the world, but who are close to being in Europe’s elite.
Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić regularly features in the voting for the top three players in Serie A every month; Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic (21) is regarded as the best young striker in Italy; Real Madrid thought enough of Luka Jovic to spend €60m on him (though they did then loan him out).
Dusan Tadic didn’t set the world on fire in his four-year spell at Southampton but he’s one of the most in-form players in the Dutch league, his Ajax side about to win yet another league title thanks in no small part to his 13 goals in 23 games.
Serbia’s starting XI tonight is likely to call on four players from Serie A, two each from the top divisions in Spain, Holland and France, with one more possibly from the Bundesliga.
Ireland, poor old Ireland in contrast, could have up to five players from clubs in England’s second tier in their XI, with only a couple of Premier League regulars. In numerous engagements with the local media this week, not one Serbian player has name-checked an Irish opponent to be wary of while coach Stojkovic seems unfussed by the XI that Stephen Kenny picks.
This World Cup tie boils down to the clash of a Champions League team with a Championship side.
Serbia are the opposite of Ireland; a squad packed with individual talents but also devoid of the team spirit which drives the Republic who are less talented but more motivated compared to the pre-Stephen Kenny era with wins against sides like Germany, Italy, Austria and Wales.
In conversation with one expert on the Serbian game this week, this writer suggested that the current club form of Serbia’s stars, in contrast to the club woes of Irishmen like Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick, Callum Robinson and Jayson Molumby, makes tonight’s game a simple task for the boys from Belgrade.
“We’ve had this for years,” was the groaned response. “These guys play really well for their clubs in Italy and Germany but they can never, ever, bring that form into the national team, that’s why we haven’t made the Euros in 20 years but you’ve been there twice since we last made it, it’s the Serbian way. Serbia definitely have better players than Ireland but maybe Ireland have a better team because you play like a team.”
One player can’t sum up the mood of a nation, but individual acts are a good barometer. James McClean, despite being out through injury for weeks, has turned up for Ireland duty, in defiance of his club who clearly felt the player was not fit and should have stayed in Stoke.
That could have repercussions for McClean but his dedication to the cause meant he could not stay away. Likewise Shane Duffy’s recovery from injury last year.
In contrast, many in Serbia cannot forgive Aleksandar Kolarov for events last year when he presented himself for the Euro 2020 play-off with Scotland but felt unable to play so he took a place on the bench, Kolarov cast by fans there as a coward, more focused on his club than his country. The anti-McClean.
While the Republic manage to mould a team out of players who are, in general, struggling at their clubs or else playing for struggling clubs, Serbia’s stars lose their shine once they don the shirt of the national side. There’s a real sense nationally in Serbia that their football team are one of Europe’s great chokers, athletes whose talents and confidence seep away the closer they get to the big stage: they haven’t been to the Euros since 2000, haven’t had a decent World Cup since 1998 and were the worst-performing side at the 2006 World Cup.
Serbian football seems to be in a constant stare of chaos: this week the head of their Football Federation resigned, having been questioned by police probing mob-related issues, including murder. The Belgrade media gleefully reported that the then Serbian FA chief recently refused to answer questions in a polygraph test if he was involved in an assassination attempt on the country’s president.
Last week Manchester United man Nemanja Matic, in voluntary exile from the national team, launched a scathing attack on the politics of the Serbian FA, saying that failure to qualify for Euro 2020 was the least of their worries as he claimed that, from issues like match-fixing in the domestic game, “with Serbian football we have reached the bottom, we are swimming in the mud”.
Tonight will prove if their players can show their undoubted class or else once again crumble in the face of a battle.