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2010 World Cup profile: Serbia

By Mark Mravic,

Group D

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Key players

The song they sing in the stands at Old Trafford, to the tune of "Volare," goes:

Nemanja, whoa-oh

Nemanja, whoa-oh-oh-oh

He comes from Serbia

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He'll f---ing murder ya

Nemanja Vidic might not literally kill opposing attackers, but the Manchester United mainstay's ferocity and aggressiveness snuff outs practically everything that comes his way. The 6-foot-2, 28-year-old Vidic is considered by some the best center back in the world, and he anchors an intimidating back line that also includes rising star Neven Subotic (a former U.S. youth international) and Chelsea right back Branislav Ivankovic. Vidic missed all three of Serbia & Montenegro's 2006 World Cup games due to suspension and injury, and the White Eagles surrendered an unconscionable 10 goals. In contrast, with Vidic firmly controlling the defense during 2010 qualifying, the Serbs gave up just eight goals in 10 matches.

Pulling the strings in front of that strong line is the wily and energetic captain Dejan Stankovic. A onetime attacking midfielder who has dropped back into more of a holding role as his career has progressed, he remains a dangerous ball-striker (witness his 45-yard bomb against Genoa this past season). But the 31-year-old Stankovic's chief strengths lie in his inspirational leadership, his smarts on and off the field and his winner's mentality. He's been a key cog in the Inter Milan machine that has won five straight Serie A titles and hoisted the Champions League trophy this year.

Up top, Serbia will count on its Crouchian target forward, the 6'8 Nikola Zigic. A prolific scorer early in his career -- 47 goals in 79 appearances with Red Star Belgrade -- the three-time Serbian player of the year struggled to find the field with Valencia in La Liga and recently completed a move to Birmingham City. While limited in his skills on the ball, Zigic, 29, is an obviously threat in the air and presents a tall challenge for Group D's defenders.

The X-factor for Serbia is the intriguing midfielder Milan Jovanovic. A late bloomer at Standard Liege who'll don the Liverpool jersey next season, the 28-year-old Jovanovic will figure prominently in the attack, especially if manager Radomir Antic employs a 4-3-3 rather than playing Zigic as a lone striker. Pacy and phenomenal on the ball, the Serbian Snake was the team's top scorer in qualifying with five goals and could provide the firepower the White Eagles will need in a competitive group.

What to watch for

If you're looking for a dark horse in this tournament, you could do worse than the Serbia. For one, in three of the last four World Cups a team from Serbia's neck of the woods -- neighbors Bulgaria in 1994 and Croatia in '98, nearby Turkey in 2002 --advanced to the semifinals. That might be mere coincidence or it might say something about the strength of gritty, high-paced Balkan-style soccer on the biggest stage. Moreover, Serbia looks to be benefiting from its opponents' misfortunes. Drawn into tightly balanced and highly competitive Group D with Germany, Ghana and Australia, the Serbs have seen the midfield maestros of their two biggest group challengers ruled out of South Africa due to injury. Germany's loss of Michael Ballack and Ghana's of Michael Essien weaken those squads just enough that Serbia might indeed be the favorite as the tournament kicks off.

Not that the White Eagles will sneak up on anyone. The squad's prowess was evident throughout qualifying, when Serbia handily topped a group that included former World Cup champions France and demolished a decent Romania team 5-0 in the clinching match in October. Antic, who's had coaching stints at Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona, is an accomplished tactician, and the squad has an experienced core of hardened veterans from Champions League-level clubs.

Finishing atop the group is critical for the Serbs. It would mean a matchup with the No. 2 team in Group C, likely the U.S., rather than a more formidable faceoff against probable Group C winner England, and then a quarterfinal showdown against what looks to be a vulnerable Argentina side.

Key match in group stage

Given the way the schedule falls, the Serbs must enter their second game, against Germany, with at least as many points as the Germans. That essentially means Serbia's opener, against an Essien-less Ghana in Pretoria on June 13, is a must-win. Three points there and a result against the Mannschaft in the second match would leave Germany and Ghana battling against each other for their group lives on a decisive third match day while Serbia faces the more manageable Australia.