Serbia and Ireland meet in Belgrade on Monday for a match that could go either way. Will Martin O’Neill get his qualification campaign off to a winning start, or can Serbia finally deliver on their potential?
Serbia has great footballing pedigree, as you might recall from the Red Star Belgrade side that won the European Cup in 1991. But the last six years have been pretty miserable for Serbian international football.
They haven’t qualified for an international tournament since the World Cup in 2010, which wasn’t exactly a success as they crashed out of the group stage.
Another New Boss
In that time they’ve gone through six head coaches, one for every season, ending up with the experienced Slavoljub Muslin in the spring.
He’s got off to an auspicious start in his friendlies, guiding Serbia to wins against Israel and Cyprus, and a draw away to Moscow.
You can understand the frustration of the FSS, because the squad is full of players who ply their trades in Europe’s top leagues, from the Bundesliga to La Liga and Portugal’s Liga Nos.
Premier League fans will know all about Dušan Tadić and Branislav Ivanović, while Aleksandar Mitrović showed glimpses of his talent at Newcastle last season, when he wasn’t suspended.
Liverpool supporters will be keen to see more of the young midfielder Marko Grujić, who seems to be part of Klopp’s squad this season and may start in midfield.
But with Absentees
The squad would be even more formidable if wasn’t for suspensions to Man City’s Aleksandar Kolarov and Nemanja Matić of Chelsea.
If these two were involved Ireland’s task would be much more difficult, particularly because Guardiola and Conte have got them looking like their old selves again.
T Spells Danger
Zoran Tošić never made it at Manchester United but has gone on to have a good career at CSKA Moscow, and is known for his imagination and threat from long range.
He’s now the Serbian captain and will most likely start on the the right.
Also tricky and creative is Southampton’s Dušan Tadić, who can be inconsistent, but if Ireland catch him on a good day he can wreak havoc with his close control and intuitive passing.
Serbia Predicted Lineup
Stojković; Rukavina, Ivanović, Rajković, Mladenović; Fejsa, Milivojević; Tošić, Tadić, Kostić; Mitrović
Ireland’s Euro Regrets
If it hadn’t been for England’s abysmal defeat to Iceland you would say that the Republic of Ireland had the most disappointing Euros of all the near neighbours.
Their one bright spot was a 1-0 win against an Italy team that was resting players for the round of 16, but they did battle gamely against France in the next round and led for almost an hour.
Short on Imagination
What they lacked most was a bit of composure in the final pass, and only the mercurial Wes Hoolahan had the kind of vision to unlock the best defences.
Hoolahan is still around, but doesn’t have many years left at the top, and with record scorer Robbie Keane calling it a day there’s an urgent need for someone with flair in attack.
Everything Else in Place
But in other areas they’re actually a bit stronger than they were in the summer. They were unlucky to lose midfielder Harry Arter to injury on the eve of the tournament after he’d had a fine season at Bournemouth.
Meanwhile Jeff Hendrick has just joined Burnley, and alongside McCarthy, Arter and West Brom’s James McClean he’d usually form a quartet of midfielders who look comfortable playing in the Premier League.
Unfortunately James McCarthy picked up an injury in Wednesday night's thrashing of Oman, and will probably be replaced by Stoke’s Glenn Whelan.
Up front Shane Long had a quiet Euros and has carried that form into the new season. But even when he’s not scoring his constant movement creates space for the rest of the team.
Republic of Ireland Predicted Lineup
Randolph; Coleman, Keogh, Clark; Brady; Hendrick, Whelan, Arter, McClean; Hoolahan; Long
When Will Serbia vs the Republic of Ireland Kick off?
The match is scheduled for 19:45 on September 5, at the Stadion FK Crvena zvezda, Belgrade
Serbia vs the Republic of Ireland Match Prediction
There isn’t much to separate these two teams at the moment, but if it wasn’t for the suspensions to key Serbian players you would back the home team to get the result.
As it stands though, Ireland should be able to hold Serbia to a draw, provided they play with the kind of tenacity and stubbornness that got them to the Euros.
It may not be the most exciting match for spectators but should finish 1-1.