Much of Serbia’s recent success has been built on a miserly defence that has conceded just 20 goals in the last 3 qualifying campaigns and two of the team’s English based players Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic have played a key role.
Manchester United managed to pip Fiorentina to Vidic’s signature in January 2006 in order for him to compete with John O’Shea, Mikael Silvestre and Wes Brown to partner Rio Ferdinand at the heart of the United defence. In that first season Vidic made 11 appearances, including one as a late substitute in the 2006 Carling Cup final success over Wigan Athletic. The following season saw Vidic cement his position in the team, forming a resolute partnership with Ferdinand. Domestic and European honours flowed in the next two seasons as Vidic’s power, strength and aggression dove-tailed with Ferdinand’s pace and composure. Vidic’s importance to Serbia is most vividly portrayed when he has been unavailable. After starring in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign in which Serbia conceded only one goal, he missed the World Cup through a combination of suspension and injury. Serbia endured a horrid tournament, losing all 3 matches and conceding 10 goals in the process.
Branislav Ivanovic arrives at the World Cup after a breakthrough season with Chelsea which ended in him picking up a domestic double. Comfortable at either right or centre back Ivanovic took full opportunity of Jose Bosingwa’s continuing injury problems to make 28 appearances last term. Ivanovic makes for an unorthodoox full back, powerfully built and standing 6ft 2in tall he still seems able to cope with the most nimble wingers, whilst proving to be a real aerial threat in opposing area at set-pieces. It was this threat that led to his most famous night as a Chelsea player when his two headed goals against Liverpool at Anfield set Chelsea on their way to the 2008 Champions League Final.
In front of this tight defence captain Dejan Stankovic can be found. Once an energetic attacking midfielder, at 31 he often now plays a more defensive role, whilst still being the fulcrum to most of the teams attacking play. The most capped player (null caps) in the current squad, Stankovic has spent the majority of his career in Italy, starting at Lazio before moving to Internazionale in 2004 collecting six Scudetto’s in the process. Stankovic has built up a reputation of consistent accurate and creative passing, along with the ability to hit the ball as cleanly as any. He also has a penchant for scoring incredible long range goals, like this one for Inter against Genoa earlier this season.
Up front Serbia have one of the most recognisable players in world football, Nikola Zigic. At 6ft 7.5in he even looks down on our own Peter Crouch. Whilst he does not have the same goal scoring ratio as Crouch, he has a decent return of 16 goals in 43 appearances for his country and will be the main goal threat in South Africa. His recent £6m move to Birmingham from Valencia, could well turn out to be a good piece of business for Alex McLeish, if he can recapture his form he showed at Racing Santander where he scored 28 goals in 51 appearances over 2 spells with the club.
Finally, the man who may play the most important part in any success Serbia have in South Africa is the manager Radomir Antic. Few managers can boast managing both Real Madrid and Barcelona, he uniquely also managed Athletico Madrid where he won a Title and a Copa del Rey. His biggest task will be to maintain the harmony of the squad that was evident through the qualifying stage. Serbia’s last World Cup adventure was overshadowed by then coach Ilija Petovic’s decision to call up his son and the subsequent media pressure that led to his son to withdraw from the squad. Antic’s achievements should earn him the respect of the entire squad, this along with his experience of managing big name players should lead to a Serbian team playing to its potential this time round.
No fewer than 15 of the current Serbian squad ply their trade in either the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga, and two in Vidic and Stankovic have lifted the Champions League. With so many members of the squad playing club football at the highest level Serbia should not be overawed in South Africa. Whilst not one of the fancied European names, Serbia have all the ingredients to match Croatia’s top 4 finish in France 1998.