With an experienced core of top-league stars and off the heels of a 2015 U-20 World Cup title, can Serbia be a surprise package at the 2018 World Cup?
Serbia heads to Russia for a third World Cup appearance as an independent nation, and it will be eyeing progression to the knockout stage in a group that is certainly manageable.
Under the guidance of young coach Mladen Krstajić, who has been in charge of the national side since October 2017, the Orlovi will be seeking to perhaps do a little bit better than in recent years. Before failing to even make the tournament in Brazil four years ago, Serbia didn't get out of its group in the 2010 and 2006 tournaments, so there'll be an extra sense of determination this time around.
That said, the team is definitely not as strong as a few years ago when it was being tipped as potential dark horses to win with players such as Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic, but expectations will still be high–especially after Serbia won the U-20 World Cup title in 2015. Here's how Serbia stacks up entering the World Cup.
How They Qualified
Serbia was drawn against Wales, Republic of Ireland, Austria, Georgia, Moldova and qualified for Russia as its group winner, with 21 points from a possible 30.
Having started with a draw against Ireland, Serbia then dispatched Austria, Georgia and Moldova. It then beat Ireland thanks to a goal from Aleksandar Kolarov to put daylight between the two nations at the top of Group D.
In the final game, it defeated Georgia 1-0 to ensure a safe progression to the World Cup.
It was a pretty impressive qualification campaign, with Serbia scoring 20 goals and losing just the once en route to Russia.
Group Stage Games
Serbia finds itself in Group E, with Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica. Brazil will be the favorite to go through as group winner, but that second-place spot is up for grabs.
Costa Rica will be out to prove its 2014 run was no fluke, but its aging nucleus doesn't have a ton of rejuvenated and fresh legs behind it, meaning the game between Serbia and Switzerland could prove to be vital. Serbia will want a positive result in its opening two matches to boost its chances of going through, because it takes on Brazil in the final group game on June 27.
Possible Route to the Final
If Serbia successfully makes it out of their group, it could be looking at games against either Germany, South Korea, Sweden or Mexico in the last 16.
Assuming Brazil goes through as group winner, it will mean Serbia is likely to face reigning champion Germany in the first knockout game, since it is by far the strongest team in its group. There are no gimmes at the World Cup though, of course.
Should Serbia advance beyond the last 16, it could then at worst meet England, Belgium, Colombia or Poland–maybe even Senegal. A looming showdown vs. Spain could potentially wait in the semifinals, while Brazil and France are among the class sides likely to be duking it out for glory on the other side of the bracket.
Goalkeepers: Vladimir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade), Predrag Rajkovic (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrovic (Eibar)
Defenders: Aleksandar Kolarov (AS Roma), Branislav Ivanovic (Zenit St. Petersburg), Dusko Tosic (Guangzhou R&F), Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Milos Veljkovic (Werder Bremen), Milan Rodic (Red Star Belgrade), Uros Spajic (Krasnodar), Nikola Milenkovic (Fiorentina)
Midfielders: Nemanja Matic (Manchester United), Luka Milivojevic (Crystal Palace), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio), Marko Grujic (Liverpool), Adem Ljajic (Torino), Dusan Tadic (Southampton), Filip Kostic (Hamburg SV), Andrija Zivkovic (Benfica), Nemanja Radonjic (Red Star Belgrade)
Forwards: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United), Aleksandar Prijovic (PAOK Salonika), Luka Jovic (Benfica)
(4-2-3-1): Rajkovic; Rukavina, Ivanovic, Tosic, Kolarov; Milivojevic, Matic; Markovic, Tadic, Kostic; Mitrovic.
Serbia has its work cut out to qualify for the last 16 with Brazil almost certain to go through, Switzerland a decent side and Costa Rica experienced in upstaging bigger names on the World Cup stage. Admittedly, Serbia does have some good players such as Matic, Milivojevic, Kolarov, Tadic, Kostic and hot transfer target Milinkovic-Savic.
Serbia is not as strong as it was a few years ago and is only ranked 35th in the world, but that said, its qualification campaign was nothing short of impressive, and it might, just might, have a deep run in them. Unless it bumps into Germany. Then, it'll be curtains.